By Piper Moore (Reporter ‘23)
With the current head of school, Mr. Sellers, retiring, Beth Johnson has been appointed the new interim head of school. I had the wonderful honor of interviewing Ms. Beth to hear what she has planned for the school during her next two years in charge. During our conversation, I inquired about her future ambitions for FCS and what changes she’s hoping to see within the community, along with questions about how her past led to this new role. While we all know Ms. Beth as a principal, I hope her responses below will give us insight into the new direction she hopes to take the school over the coming years.
To start our discussion, I asked Ms. Beth about anything she would like to bring back from the school’s past, and unsurprisingly she immediately mentioned community events that she would like to implement to reunite people after the dispersion we’ve felt as a result of the pandemic: “I want to bring Blue Gray day, with everyone from all the schools in either blue or gray colors engaging in cooperative competition. I want it to be like a fair, but not quite with food and games, and I want every grade from every school to help create it. I want students to work together and for the younger students from the Lower School to meet and work with the Upper School in any way they can.” While she heavily expressed her wishes for this event, she also mentioned wanting feedback from others within the community, especially from students.
Though Ms. Beth is currently poised to be the interim head of school for two years, I still wanted to ask her if she sees any big changes coming in the next 10 years at FCS. She remarked that even though she only has limited time, she plans to add many programs to FCS, especially focusing on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math): “I think in the next couple of years I want to put more emphasis…on STEAM education, and with the Lower School having a light lab I want the Upper School to have something like that as well. I want a team to develop an innovation lab, have the core teams work together, and focus on sustainability and the environment. Mr. Gruber has already started this initiative with biodiversity, conservation, and data science, and I want to further that.” As for other ideas she was excited to implement into the community, Ms. Beth commented: “In addition to what I said earlier about a focus on STEAM, I’m also interested in sports and school spirit, especially for next year when we can do things safely. I recently talked with some coaches about [how to make this happen] next year.”
Ms. Beth also wants the school to question what it means to be a Quaker school and work on its commitment to the world through diversity, equity, and inclusion. She elaborated on this when I asked about a time she had to creatively solve a problem. She said it's one she's still working on, but in trying to make FCS more equitable she has had to use a lot of creative solutions: “Can it be something that’s still ongoing? I would have to say creating the student equity council that Erica Snowden now runs and sharing stories through Black Mainline Speaks.”
While speaking of her past actions, I also asked her about how her career led her to this position and if there was anyone who helped her along the way. Ms. Beth said that in her 30 years working at independent schools, most of that time was spent at FCS where she held numerous titles and positions within the divisions of administration, teaching, and coaching, and while there were multiple people to thank, David Felsen, a former head of school, stood out: “David Felsen wasn’t really a mentor but rather my sponsor. He pushed me into more and more opportunities, familiarizing me with every single aspect of the school, and furthered my professional development. He saw something in me and made sure that every single possible job I could have, I did, and had the experience of working [those jobs].”
I wanted to learn more about Ms. Beth’s past and how it led her here, so I questioned her about one mistake she’s made and what she has learned from it. She told me that when she used to work for admissions she made a huge financial mistake that would have had massive repercussions on the school’s budget: “I didn’t know what to do, so over the next three days I tried to figure out what I did wrong and how to fix it. And you know what, I was able to figure out the mistake but I couldn’t fix it. Eventually, I had to go to the person in charge and tell them what happened. It could have been a disaster, and when I explained myself, they weren't angry. Instead, they helped and comforted me. And that’s who I want to be as a leader. I learned that to be a good leader you have to collaborate and support others. Good leaders don't necessarily have to know the answers, they just have to ask the right questions.”
Wrapping up the interview, I asked what we, as a school, have done to actively participate in social justice for indigenous peoples beyond the land acknowledgment of the Lenni Lenape. In response, she said: “I want those words to mean something, for them to be attached to actions. Because we need to do more than recognition, we need to do more than support statements. I want to open our doors to the Lenni Lenape people; I want to provide an FCS education and really reckon with history; I want to do the work to make them feel like they belong, and not just in words but in actions.”
As for next year, Ms. Beth is hopeful that the 2021–2022 school year will look like the fall of 2019, but with masks, and she is particularly excited about an opening school year event: “Right now, I’m trying to get input from current fourth, seventh, and eleventh graders about what they want as an opening event. I want to hear their opinions and really stay true to their wishes. We all need some relief and celebration in our lives and I want to commemorate that with singing, instruments, and competitions. I want speakers to be back on campus and the cafeteria to open with the smell of pancakes in the morning. I just want things to return to normal.” Though our situation at school may not return to exactly the way it was pre-pandemic, we at FOCUS have full faith in Ms. Beth’s leadership and vision for our school moving forward. We wish Ms. Beth luck in her new responsibilities and plans for the community. We commend Ms. Beth’s enthusiasm and eagerness for her new position.