Head of School Message

Steve Photo.jpg

In 1910 as Vassie James Hill prepared to start a school for boys she studied with the groundbreaking educator John Dewey.  Among Dewey’s central beliefs was the notion that learning was best achieved by activity and engagement in addition to sitting and listening.  The Country Day School opened with Dewey’s progressive ideals at the heart of its curriculum and three years later they were incorporated into the new school for girls, Sunset Hill.  These ideals still flourish today at Pembroke Hill.  We are a place where students learn at a young age to see themselves as participants in life rather than merely spectators.  This happens on the athletic field and the stage. It also happens in the lab and in the classroom.   

Our approach is remarkably simple.  Put talented and diverse young people together with skilled and dedicated adults, with support from engaged and committed families and you create extraordinary results that speak for themselves.  This combination produces a school culture that must be experienced in order to be truly understood.  It is a culture where students at all levels say it is “cool to do your best” or “cool to be smart” and where mathematicians, athletes, writers, musicians and class leaders all thrive side-by-side, often within the same student.

The relationships forged between faculty and students are the heart of the Pembroke Hill experience.  Every young person is known by many adults. This intimacy and long-term commitment forge a bond that is rare in today’s world.  Teachers expect much of their students, but they expect even more from themselves.  Every day I get to see this result in students achieving more than they themselves thought possible.

If you are already part of the Pembroke Hill community you know what it is that I write about.  If you are just beginning to explore our school, I invite you to come to visit us and experience first hand the unique spirit of Pembroke Hill.

You may always contact me at sbellis@pembrokehill.orgor follow me on Twitter https://twitter.com/StevenJBellis.

Dr. Steve Bellis
Head of School
The Pembroke Hill School



November 2011

November 2011

The mission of our school is “to help each student build character and develop his or his intellectual, physical and creative abilities to the highest possible level.”  Last month in this column, I wrote about character and the role of the school in helping parents develop it in their children.

Today, I will address another important aspect of our mission – athletics. Nurturing a student’s talents is a multifaceted and complex undertaking.  Like all schools, students come to us with varying levels of athletic interests and abilities.  Our mission charges us with helping each one of them to develop these abilities to his or her own personal best.

This effort begins with our youngest students. Teachers in the early childhood program work daily to ensure that children are moving and becoming comfortable in their bodies.  Physical activity of all sorts is an integral part of the school day.  Every day our fields and lawns are filled with the sights and sounds of lower school children engaged in spirited, rambunctious play at recess. The large cut I am currently sporting on my nose was acquired while participating with the third graders in their recess soccer game yesterday and attests to the zest of play.

Another aspect is physical education.  Housed in Deramus Field House, the program emphasizes safely increasing heart rates and developing coordination, along with a wide range of athletic skills, all in keeping with the latest knowledge about children’s health and learning.  In addition, the Sports Council offers 10 sports, beginning with soccer for prekindergarten students.  Last spring, 452 students participated in the program. The Sports Council strongly encourages both participation and experimentation.  As children are discovering which sports appeal to them, everyone is benefiting from the social aspects of being on a team.

I have coached more than 20 seasons in both boys and girls basketball and soccer.  One year I was coaching sixth grade boys basketball.  It was a terrific team, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The team had players with a wide range of skills and interests in the game.  We were doing well on the court, and they seemed to be learning a lot and having a great time.  Late in the season, I asked one of the parents how she thought we were doing.  “Terrible,” was her reply, “Those of us with ‘good’ players are not happy that you are playing the weaker players so much.”

In response, I told her that the goal of the program was participation up through sixth grade and that my personal passion was for every one of my 10 players to have a great experience. While my answer may not have pleased her, we did enjoy a healthy discussion about the philosophy of the program.  My mind turned back to that conversation when I was sitting in the stands at senior night last February as one of the players on that team hit the game winning shot at the buzzer against Barstow. Two of his teammates were on the floor and several more cheered wildly from the stands. Time had worked its magic, and the boys had found their own place in the game.

In the upper school we have twin goals of participation and excellence.  At the same time, athletics must exist in balance with a demanding academic program and many other important activities.  We are extremely proud that 82 percent of upper school students participated on at least one of our 22 teams last year.  This remarkable participation rate ensures that almost every graduate has had the experience of effort, perseverance, teamwork and pride that being part of a school team provides. There is no experience like putting on the Raider uniform and representing yourself, your team and your school when the whistle blows.

At the same time, our teams achieve tremendous results. Last year, all but three of them had winning records. Of those, lacrosse is only two years removed from a state championship, baseball only one from a third place finish, and field hockey is in the middle of a magical season this fall. Last year five teams (dance, boys and girls soccer, boys golf and tennis) advanced to state, while volleyball, football and both basketball teams had terrific runs. Golf and tennis added to their impressive number of state titles.

I think I attend more sporting events in a year than anyone outside of the athletic department. I greatly enjoy the spirited play and the high level of sportsmanship, as well as the opportunity to get to know students in another setting.  It is impressive to experience how much athletes develop from their freshman season to senior year. Seeing those same students the following morning in class, where their academic record is far and away the best in the city, I am heartened that at Pembroke Hill, the ideal of scholar-athlete is alive and well.

“Participation and excellence.”
“Competition and sportsmanship.”
“Athlete and scholar.”

Achieving one item in each of these pairs would be much less of a challenge. That, however, is not our mission, and it is not good enough.  We strive for both and, by and large, we are successful.

Steve Bellis, Ed.D.
Head Of School

October 2011

October 2011

I have often thought that one of the essential traits our graduates need to take into their adult lives is resiliency. The habit of persevering when things do not go well or when they become boring, is what separates those who push through life’s inevitable setbacks and doldrums. The other trait is a healthy sense of “locus of control.” That is, when facing a challenging situation or problem, do people tend to focus on what they can do or have done, or do they look to blame others or pass responsibility onto them.  As I have watched a thousand graduates leave our school, it has been clear to me that those students who hold themselves responsible and who show up ready to give their best every single day will do well beyond our campus.

Following their progress in life has only strengthened my belief in these two ideas. Stanford professor Carol Dweck drew standing-room-only crowds at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual meeting when she discussed her book, Mindset.  Its primary thesis is that children develop habits of optimistic perseverance when they are rewarded for effort rather than achievement. This simple, yet powerful idea, leads to a mindset that says that something I control (my own diligence and perseverance) leads to success rather than something I do not control (the outcome).

In his September blog on the NAIS website (link can be found at my Twitter home - @PHSHeadmaster), president Pat Bassett writes about similar themes.  His belief is that the 21st Century demands and rewards the skills he calls the “Five C’s.” These are:
1. Critical thinking;
2. Creativity;
3. Communication (writing, public speaking and facility with technology);
4. Collaboration (and leadership); and
5. Character.

He goes on to discuss a panel on which he served this summer that included the president of Georgetown, the president of Stanford, the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard and the director of the Initiative For Innovation In Engineering Education at Olin College. The conversation revealed some alarming trends at these elite schools. The panel confirmed that a substantial portion of undergraduates (in excess of 30 percent) are on antidepressants, and that 10 percent of girls suffer from eating disorders. They also stated that the biggest need for coordination between schools and colleges was not related to math readiness or work ethic, but alarmingly, “students coming from high school already with a serious alcohol problem.”  Lastly, Pat asked them, “What do you want to see in entering freshmen?” The consensus of these university leaders was:
1. Writing skills (communication);
2. Independent thinking (creativity);
3. Emotional resiliency (character); and
4. Intellectual risk-taking (critical thinking).

This list is almost a direct match with Pat’s “Five C’s” and, of the character traits, emotional resiliency was the one they chose to emphasize. This idea is consistent with a compelling piece in the Sept. 18 issue of The New York Times Magazine titled The Secret To Success Is Failure. The article chronicles an effort underway among NAIS member school Riverdale (NY), leaders of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Dr. Martin Seligman and his team of researchers at The University of Pennsylvania. Their work, which includes studies of plebes at West Point and graduates of one of KIPP’s leading schools in a tough section of the Bronx, has led them to conclude that it is not IQ that leads to post-secondary school success, but character.  In an important distinction, they define character not as those moral qualities often used to define it in schools (e.g., fairness, generosity and integrity), but rather as personal behavior attributes that lead to life success. They chose to focus on these seven strengths, or “habits of character” - zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

Character is at the center of our mission statement and is a central focus of our work.  It is a topic that is always top-of-mind, and it is an area about which we will eagerly continue to learn as we determine how best to impart these vital life skills to our students. Their futures depend upon it.

Steve Bellis, Ed.D.
Head Of School


August 2011

 August 2011

Welcome back and a hearty welcome aboard to all of our new families.

It has been a great summer at Pembroke Hill. We have been working hard on everything from a new website that will debut later this year to resurfacing the tennis courts. We will definitely be ready when your student arrives. I share three of my summer highlights. The first is the one-week visit of Dr. Mahesh Sharma to campus in late June. Dr. Sharma, a former mathematics professor at M.I.T and now president of his own consulting group (www.mathematicsforall.org), conducted an on-site training session for most of our lead and assistant teachers from kindergarten through sixth grade. Teachers of older students also attended some of the sessions. It was an extraordinary week. Dr. Sharma is a gifted teacher and a charming man on top of it. He has a very clear view of how to teach mathematics so that all students develop specific abilities and skills to a high level. The simplicity of his approach and the resonance that it found among those gathered created a charged atmosphere. On Friday, after four long days of intense work, the room was filled with even more energy than it had on Monday. While our mathematics results are already quite good, we are always trying to improve and Dr. Sharma’s visit is a good example of how we seek to do just that. He will return to campus this year for two days in order to observe teachers in their classrooms and work one-on-one with them.

The following week I shared a rental car with Susan Leonard, David Burke and Mike Hill as we traversed from Providence, R.I. down to Connecticut and back up through western Massachusetts into Vermont and New Hampshire. We even enjoyed a great lunch in David’s Vermont hometown! The tour took us to 11 colleges and universities (Brown, Connecticut College, Yale, Wesleyan, Trinity, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Williams, Middlebury and Dartmouth). It was a terrific trip filled with great meetings that further developed Pembroke Hill’s important relationships with these schools and enlarged the perspective of all four of us. We learned a lot about the schools and also about the current admissions climate from the college perspective.

They are balancing many pressures and challenging priorities as they make admissions decisions, but it is clear that academic preparation and intellectual curiosity remain at the forefront. As consistently happens when I talk with college admissions officers, I was pleased to yet again be reminded that they are well aware of Pembroke Hill and have tremendous respect for the quality of our graduates. They are also quite aware of the rigor of our grading scale and what it takes to succeed here. An enjoyable moment of the trip was when Ron Liebowitz, the president of Middlebury, told us that he has been a lifelong, devoted Chiefs fan since watching Lenny Dawson play against the Jets in Shea Stadium in the mid-1960s. It is indeed a small world.

On a personal note, my favorite highlight has been the return of my children, Annie and Tom, for the summer. Their presence around the dinner table once again has been a gift to Virginia and me. We are grateful for it and for them. It will be hard to say good-bye one more time.

Amidst the many activities found in every school year, a few items warrant mention. This will be the first year of the ISACS (Independent Schools of the Central States) re-accreditation process. Every seven years, all ISACS schools are required to do an extensive self-study, which includes an evaluation from a visiting team. Year one of the process involves conducting an ISACS-created survey of all constituencies. A particular benefit of this survey is that the results are benchmarked against those from hundreds of other schools. The second primary activity of this year will be a review of the Pembroke Hill mission and strategic plan. The current strategic plan was created in 2004 and 2005. It can be found on the website or at the front desk in Founders Hall. All members of the PHS community will have an opportunity to be involved in this process during the year.

Susan Leonard and the middle school faculty will be conducting two studies this fall. The first, aided by a senior consultant from Independent School Management (ISM), will be a review of the schedule. This work has significant potential to enhance how the faculty is able to teach and engage students. The second is an exploration of the use of the iPad in the classroom. Look for news about both of these exciting initiatives later in the first semester.

In the upper school I am very excited for the start of Mike Hill’s tenure. He has been hard at work this summer getting ready and I know that he is particularly eager to meet all of the new students and their families. Please introduce yourself to Mike if you do not already know him.

Finally, I am going to try something new this year. I can be found at Twitter under PHSHeadmaster. I hesitated to do this because of the me-too bandwagon aspect of it and the risk of over-communicating, but decided to take the plunge when it hit me this spring that I hear so much good news that others would like to know and this is a perfect way to instantly communicate it. There will be occasional tweets about educational topics such as thoughts from NAIS President Pat Bassett or links to articles, but most of them will be about what I come across in my daily life here at school and celebrating students - such as “Riya Mehta just placed third in the nation at the National History Day contest” or “K-6 Chess Team finished fifth in the nation.” Alumni have asked for this kind of news so using this to share it with them will be an added benefi t. At mid-year I will evaluate whether or not it is a useful undertaking.

Once again, I am glad your family has chosen to be part of Pembroke Hill. I look forward to sharing this year with you and our students.

Steve Bellis, Ed.D.
Head Of School

January 2012

My position puts me at the heart of our school, and so, I share with you a portion of what I experienced during the final two weeks of the semester. 

A very busy weekend started it all on Dec. 2 and 3.  Phillips Gym was filled with a triple-header basketball evening with O’Hara. While our boys enjoyed their first opportunity of the year to play before a home crowd, Susan LeonardMary Pepitone, Mike Hill and I were judging the inaugural Pembroke Hill Chili Cook-Off. A gym full of basketball players, pep band members, cheerleaders and dancers was only a short distance from a dining hall of festive parents and great chili. It was Pembroke Hill at its best, but I experience that often - as the rest of this letter will show.

Saturday morning, the gym was in use by a different kind of competitor.  Eighteen middle school Science Olympiad teams spread out on every corner of the campus.  Phillips was home to mechanical vehicles and catapults. The quadrangle was a rocket launch pad. The classrooms of Boocock were crime and anatomy labs.  I am not sure what I find more exciting - a campus where teenagers and their parents are engaged in wholesome, physical activities on a Friday night, or one where adolescents are alive with scientific competition on a Saturday morning.

What I found especially rewarding was to discover a junior who had been guarding O’Hara’s 6-foot-6 center the night before moderating one of the science events.  Now, that is our mission statement!  By the way, the dance team gave a powerful performance, and our middle school students finished first among the 18 schools. 

On Monday, PSAT results for the juniors arrived on my desk.  Even by Pembroke Hill standards, the results were extraordinary.  Nineteen percent of the class scored in the top 1 percent of all college-bound PSAT participants, 32 percent in the top 5 percent, 56 percent in the top 10 percent and 77 percent in the top 20 percent. I hesitate to share news like this because it can come across as boastful, but I have decided that if I don’t, the good news of our story won’t be as widely known as it should. At the same time, it is essential that a student scoring at the 65th percentile feels as valued by our school as his or her classmate at the 99th.  It is vitally important to all of us to move each student from where he or she might have been in another school to his or her full potential here.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to measure that difference, while an absolute score is readily apparent.  Needless to say, the faculty and I are thrilled when we see all students achieving at these levels.

That same week brought early admissions results. This is one of the most exciting and painful times of the year as many students see their hard work and talents rewarded with the news they had hoped for, while others are disappointed and must continue with the regular admissions process.  Each year, as I look at the credentials of all of them, I am impressed by our students and reminded of the challenging world they face. This year, we had students admitted to too many schools to list, but I will single out two.  Four students will be attending the red hot University of Richmond, one of a number of regional schools moving onto the national stage in recent years.  And, among only 755 students from the United States and abroad admitted early to Stanford are three members of the PHS Class Of 2012.

On the Tuesday before the break, I was in the back of a classroom with several lower school teachers observing Mahesh Sharma teach a math lesson.  Last summer Mr. Sharma spent a week with our lower school faculty sharing his practical, effective ideas for deepening mathematical understanding. His return visit provided the opportunity for the teachers to share their experiences working with students this fall in order to increase their own understanding.  He will be with us again next summer for six days, spending part of the time with the original group, and the remainder with our Ward Parkway math teachers. The work it takes to be our best is never ending.  One measure of the effect he has already had on us is the enthusiasm of veteran teachers for his ideas as they see them work with their students, topped only by the enthusiasm displayed by children.  I recently heard one second grader exclaim at the end of a math lesson, “Please, please, please, can we just do one more!”  That is music to my ears!

Speaking of music - as life at the school would not be complete without it - neither would a story about the end of the semester. These past two weeks music filled the air,including the fourth grade concert, instrumental music night, the middle school holiday show, the 50th performance of Handel’s Messiah and the upper school concert, capped by a large number of alumni joining the choir on the stage to sing the traditional finale. Of all these beautiful performances, my personal favorite was Shalom, Havarim, performed by the kindergartners for a packed audience of parents and grandparents in Hall Student Center, and the entire lower school the next day. They were mesmerizing. Their teacher told me she had taught them that if they could feel peace themselves, then they would be able to share it with their audience. They certainly must have felt it in abundance. A wave of good feeling washed over everyone.  It was the perfect way to send all of us out to celebrate the holidays. I hope this letter allows you to feel the pride and enthusiasm that I feel in such abundance here at the heart of Pembroke Hill.

March 2012

One recent afternoon, I sat in the audience watching rehearsals for Oklahoma!. The cast was gathered in a large circle doing pre-rehearsal warmups. Remarkably, the circle of 52 contained 1/8th of the upper school student body. It contained seniors and freshmen, as well as acting-focused students and those participating in an upper school play or musical for the very fi rst time. Smiles, laughter and outright silliness punctuated the exercises as the school day transitioned into a different kind of serious pursuit.

Along with character, intellect and physical abilities, our mission calls upon us to fully develop the creative abilities found in each of our students. It is a challenge that we embrace with gusto throughout the school. While the arts are intellectual, and creativity is not limited to the arts, this portion of the mission was largely written to ensure that the arts continue at the core of Pembroke Hill. And, they certainly are. They are intertwined in the curriculum on an almost daily basis. When we are working at the highest level, it is not easy to see where one aspect of the mission ends and another begins. In fact, I was at that Oklahoma! rehearsal because earlier that week, after sitting in on their Precalculus Accelerated class, I found myself in a spirited conversation about the show with two sophomores. Their enthusiasm led me to want to experience it for myself.

Earlier in that same day I was in the hallway of the middle school at 3:15 p.m. There is always a rush in the air during this time of year due, in part, to the start of Showcase practice. Three seventh graders were awaiting their session when I asked them what their favorite song was this year? They all agreed that it was theme song from Little Shop Of Horrors. After some coaxing, they sang it right there in the hallway for two of their teachers and me. As reluctance gave way to familiarity with the song and the pleasure of singing it, the volume grew until the hallway was fi lled with song.

In addition to singing (and adolescence!) the hallways of the middle school are always filled with student art. Recently a display of super-sized comic book art, based on the work of Roy Lichtenstein, shared the stage with extraordinary ceramic pieces of various types of food. This work was part of what was submitted by our seventh through 12th graders to earn an unprecedented 117 awards competing in the multi-state Scholastic Art competition, which includes arts high schools in Chicago and Minneapolis. Needless to say, all of us were thrilled to have the talent and hard work of these students and their teachers recognized in this way. And anyone who has experienced the Wornall campus visual arts program knows where the foundation for this success begins. (See Visual Arts Program story, page 1.)

In fact, the success of all of our arts programs begins on the Wornall campus. From the arts studio that is incorporated into the life of the early childhood program up through the formation of the instrumental music band in fi fth grade, painting, singing, acting and performing are all an important part of the curriculum. In addition to the regular exhibitions and performances, two of my favorites are the Lower School Recital and the Variety Show. As they take their place on stage at the center of attention, the talent and courage demonstrated by the students are extraordinary. They have certainly learned to see themselves as participants in life rather than spectators. Last year, when we celebrated the Centennial of Pembroke Hill, all of us were reminded of our founder Vassie James Hill’s commitment to educating the whole child and her deep belief that children learn best by doing. Vassie was ahead of her time in understanding how music, drama and painting added signifi - cantly to the development and growth of a child. Modern science has since proven her wisdom while, unfortunately, most schools are cutting back on this important part of their curriculum.

At Pembroke Hill, our commitment to the arts has never been greater, as measured by the classes offered or the quality of the faculty found throughout the school. We continue to vigorously pursue the dual goal of providing the opportunity for students deeply interested in the arts to explore and develop that passion to the highest degree possible while ensuring that every student experiences all aspects of the arts at a level suffi cient to allow him or her to develop substantial knowledge and skills. We continue to strive to live up to the lofty ambitions of our mission.