COLUMBIA — When retired Air Force Col. Scott K. Gibson III took over the leadership of Columbia Independent School last month, he found himself in another new role: teaching French.
"I remember being at that level myself," said Gibson, who spent much of his military career in French-speaking countries and is fluent. Given the difficult economy and that there is only one student learning the language right now, it made sense for the new head of school to expand his duties.
Total enrollment: 212
Lower School (K-5) enrollment: 118
Upper School (6-12) enrollment: 94
Student retention rate (between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years): 85 percent
Location: The Lower School, 107 Waugh St., leases space from Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The Upper School, 1200 E. Broadway, leases space from Stephens College. Both will move to 1801 N. Stadium Blvd. for the 2009-10 school year.
Lower School tuition: $10,210
Upper School tuition: $12,525
Gibson, 47, brings an unusual background to the private, nonsectarian school, which opened to students in 1998 and now includes kindergarten through 12th grade. Although he has worked in private schools for about five years, Gibson showed dedication to education during his time in the military, "setting up and operating an outreach program from the University of Maryland in the battle zone of Kuwait while commanding a squadron of fighter pilots in the first recent Persian Gulf conflict," said Timothy Holekamp, who chaired the Columbia Independent School search committee.
Gibson retired from the Air Force after being promoted to colonel. After that, he was the headmaster for two years each at Boys' Latin School in Baltimore and St. Paul's Episcopal School in Mobile, Ala. He called his first visit to Columbia to meet the board magical.
“Columbia Independent was exactly what I thought an independent school should be,” Gibson said.
"Very early in our communication with him," Holekamp said, "he acknowledged that to some degree, he could see how we might view his candidacy to be like a square peg being pounded into a round hole, but (he) hoped we would look deeper."
Because the school is moving to a bigger facility, instituting a middle school and hoping to expand its enrollment and programs, Columbia Independent School is at a pivotal moment in its history and development, Holekamp said. The committee saw Gibson as someone who could lead the school through those changes.
“These events provided a chance for people to socialize for an hour or two," Wernecke said. "They were great bonding activities and not something that had ever happened before.”
Wernecke met the candidates for headmaster during the selection process when Gibson was chosen. She said that in her 15 years at Boys' Latin School, it had four headmasters. Because they had gone through several headmasters, the board of trustees wanted someone familiar with the school. Gibson was an alumnus.
The other candidate had served as a headmaster at a school in New England for a long time and was "very traditional," she said. Gibson, she said, had the institutional knowledge of Boys' Latin School and came from a background different from the other candidate, bringing a new attitude about heading a school.
“He wanted to get everyone on board with a common vision,” Wernecke said.
Wernecke said one of the first things Gibson did was write a vision statement, articulating common goals for the school. She said one was to increase the school's academic rigor; Gibson wanted every student to be challenged. He also set goals for growing the school's endowment and increasing fundraising for the school, both of which occurred during his time there, she said.
Gibson worked with the governing board there exceptionally well, she said. Unlike previous headmasters, he shared detailed PowerPoint presentations and gave board members reports they could take with them.
Wernecke said she learned from his style of leadership and does certain things the same way now that she is president of the Institute of Notre Dame, an all-girl Catholic high school in Baltimore, a position she has held for almost two years.
“Col. Gibson told me I was a great leader and that my skills weren't being best used in my position at Boys' Latin,” Wernecke said. “He encouraged me to be a head of school.”
Laurie Shorter, director of the intermediate division when Gibson took over at St. Paul’s Episcopal, echoed Wernecke. “Soon after his arrival, Mr. Gibson announced to all the senior staff members the opportunity to work with him on creating a strategic plan for the school," Shorter said. "I was very interested in this concept and eager to see such a plan in place.”
Shorter said that during this process she came to appreciate Gibson’s work ethic, desire for excellence and gift for communication. Shorter said she admired his integrity and professionalism.
“The most enduring product of his tenure was the strategic plan,” Shorter said. “It is still being implemented as planned, and important goals are being addressed as a result. In a faculty meeting yesterday, the current headmaster made reference to the changes that had taken place as a result of the strategic plan’s implementation.”
She said St. Paul's Episcopal continues with the ideas articulated by Gibson through the work of that committee, developing a new professional development and teacher evaluation plan and reducing class sizes, particularly in the Upper School.
Shorter said Gibson also initiated a series of forums at which parents and school officials engaged in free and open communication. These have continued since his departure because of their popularity among parents, she said.
“The people of Columbia are fortunate to have him there,” Shorter said.
Gibson said his hero was Jack Williams, the headmaster while he was a student at Boys' Latin who revitalized the school and led it for more than a decade.
“As a new headmaster," Gibson said, "all you can ask for is a chance."