Michael Gee, the recently named head of school at Allendale Columbia, played host to a group of international students at his house last week to watch football and have a meal.
Their situation is one Gee understands well. As an international scholar, Gee came from his native England to teach in American public schools. After working his way up at Winchester Thurston School, a private school in Pittsburgh, Gee made a reputation as a strong leader with a focus on science and mathematics as well as international education.
He brought those strengths to Allendale Columbia when he was selected as its head of school in late 2011. Taking over at a school with 362 students, 58 full- and part-time faculty members and a total budget of close to $7.5 million, he already has made his mark.
This summer he implemented an in-depth science curriculum for students in the lower school and has made strides to improve the school's robust international program.
The crux of these changes focuses on preparing students for what they will face after their days in school end, he says.
"We're always thinking of what we need to do so they'll be successful," says Gee, 48. "We have a great track record of our students going to the best colleges and universities and doing well there, but we also need to think about what it is they will need after college as well."
Coming to America
Gee's first teaching experience was in Nottingham, in his native England. In 1990 he started teaching at what was known as a community school, a model with an open plan with no doors or offices.
The school was open until 9 p.m., allowing students to come back after hours and receive tutoring or help on homework. Situated in a part of town that included a closed mine, the school was a big winner, Gee says.
"They had a lot of success, against the odds of the area and their situation," he says.
He taught there for seven years, also coaching soccer, before entering the Fulbright Scholar Exchange Program. The program sends teachers abroad to gain a greater perspective on education and international issues, and for Gee it meant leaving England to become a teacher in Pittsburgh.
He ended up at Schenley High School, an inner-city school with metal detectors at entrances. Gee would spend two years there, getting experience in an American school setting, but gaining something else as well.
"While I was there I met my future wife, Amy, and when it came time for me to return to England we got engaged," Gee says.
While in England, Gee intended to return to the United States and again teach in public schools, a setting that had become his forte. But as he worked through the process of returning, Gee found that teaching certification for public schools was a difficult process, one that differed for each state.
He spoke to his principal at Schenley High School, who encouraged him to try private schools, which Gee prefers to call independent schools.
"I found a position at Winchester Thurston School back in Pittsburgh, teaching AP physics and chemistry," Gee says. "This was a school in the city of Pittsburgh, but it was in a part of the city near the cultural district and Carnegie Mellon, so it was a different experience than I had the first time."
The transition to an independent school after teaching in underprivileged public schools was not as difficult as Gee had thought it could be. As the child of working-class parents who had worked since they were 15, Gee had been the first in his family to go to college and was acquainted with the issues facing students who grow up in poverty.
Coming to Winchester Thurston School, he had heard the stereotype of independent schools as stuffy, exclusive places. His experience was anything but that, Gee says.
"A lot of people have a picture of independent schools as being like country clubs, but it's much more diverse than people realize," he said. "Kids are kids, and working in this setting can be just as challenging as an inner-city school with underprivileged kids."
Independent schools did have several advantages when it came to teaching, Gee found. The curriculum at these schools could be much more flexible, responding in time as students' needs changed without additional layers of bureaucracy to navigate.
"We have an approach that if there is something you need to be doing for your students, you just do it," Gee says, snapping his fingers.
While at Winchester Thurston School, Gee became head of the upper school, a position he held for 12 years. He enjoyed and valued the experience but says he had intentions of becoming the head of an independent school.
Gee went to Columbia University to get his master's degree in independent school management, the only such program in the country. After completing the program in 2008, he was ready to make the next step.
Joining Allendale Columbia
At roughly the same time, Allendale Columbia had a vacancy. David Blanchard, then the head of school, announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2011-12 school year, and the board decided to undertake an international search for his replacement.
The board hired a search firm, one that pulled in finalists from as far away as Manila. One finalist was Gee.
When Gee was contacted by the search firm, he admits he had not heard much about Allendale Columbia. When he came to Rochester as part of the interview process, he found the city to be similar to Pittsburgh, both in size and demographics.
"When I came and had a look at the school and campus, I just fell in love with it," Gee says. "I saw this as a good opportunity for me."
As the search process wound down, the Allendale Columbia board came to the same decision. After starting the search process with more than 100 candidates, the board selected Gee to start in July.
Gee stood out, Chairman Paul Holloway says.
"What really stood out is his track record of academic excellence at Winchester Thurston School," Holloway says. "He had a strong focus on math and science, and that's a place where Allendale Columbia excels as well. His coming from the U.K. and having that international perspective also stood out."
Once at the school, Gee wasted no time in learning about its strengths and weaknesses. Starting at the beginning of the month, he sat down with close to 70 members of the school community, including faculty members and parents, for roughly an hour each.
From these meetings he learned what things the school was doing well and others that it was not. He also got a feel for the unique aspects of Allendale Columbia.
"I saw how it's a whole community here," Gee says. "There's family-style dining for the students and assigned seating, so they sit with all different groups and ages. It gives us a very close feel here."
Gee has taken great steps to encourage that atmosphere. Holloway notes that his daughter, a 12th-grade student at Allendale Columbia, returned from the first day of school excited about the speech Gee had given to students.
"Since school started, he's been eating his lunch in the cafeteria with students every day, making sure he sits with all the different groups to get to know the students," Holloway says.
Gee also has been working on his transition to Rochester. He and his wife live in Pittsford with their daughter, Medeleine. Exploring the region, he finds the similarities to Pittsburgh even more striking than he noticed at first glance, Gee says.
He is settling into his routine at home. He has been gardening and nursing an Achilles injury that has forced him away from his love, playing soccer.
"I have found a club in Spencerport that I've been doing a bit of running with, and it feels very good to get back out there," Gee says.
Boosting STEM curriculum
After spending much of his first few weeks listening to members of the Allendale Columbia community, Gee had a chance to make a major change of his own just days before the school year started.
After a science teacher departed, Gee had the choice to go back to the pool of available teachers and fill the position, but he made a different decision. Seeing it as an opportunity to boost the science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum, Gee decided instead to contract with a company to provide an in-school science curriculum.
The company, Vista Teach Instructional Services Inc., works with students in kindergarten through grade 5 in daily 90-minute sessions. During that time, roughly double the length of the previous science class, students work together in small groups to do hands-on exploration of science and engineering concepts.
Reaching students at such a young age is important in setting them on a path to academic excellence, Gee notes.
Parents have responded well to the program. Mauricio Riveros, the parent of three students at Allendale Columbia and also a trustee, says he noticed a difference almost immediately.
"My 7-year-old all of a sudden started coming home with all these great ideas about science and technology, and even talking about things like engineering concepts," Riveros says.
Holloway says the stellar AP scores and student achievement in the upper school will be able to move down to the lower school, where they can foster even better performance in the future.
Gee also has improved the school's international program, a process that started before his arrival. In May the school announced that it was expanding its Global Education Initiative, appointing a new dean of international programs and boosting its study abroad programs.
The international face of Allendale Columbia for Gee reinforces the lesson he learned at Winchester Thurston School, that independent schools are anything but stuffy and exclusive.
"I think many people still do have the view of the independent school as like a country club, but we're working to change that," Gee says.
For the future, Gee says, he has other ideas to improve teaching, such as boosting the technology used by students, but he says ultimately he will adapt his plans to the changing needs of the school.
"It's wrong to just come in with a vision of what I want this school to be and forcing it on them," Gee says. "We're in the business of producing bright, creative students."
Whatever changes he decides to implement, he will move on them as quickly as he did the STEM program. He notes he is free from the constraints public schools face, giving him the ability to hire and fire teachers as the school needs.
Gee also has been working to improve Allendale Columbia's relationship with local public schools, meeting with Rochester City School District Superintendent Bolgen Vargas to find areas of common interest. Gee also plans to serve as "superintendent for a day" at RCSD.
Still, he says he prefers the advantages and flexibility that come with an independent school.
"Schools tend to do things and implement change slowly, but we want to do it more quickly," Gee says. "Looking at public schools 100 years ago, they don't look that much different in structure and curriculum from what you see today. The nice thing about being at an independent school like Allendale Columbia is that we can do things so much more quickly."
Position: Head of school, Allendale Columbia School
Education: B.S. in chemistry and analytical science, 1988, and PCGE certification in chemistry, physics, biology and physical education, Loughborough University of Technology, 1990; M.Ed. in education leadership with focus in private school leadership, Columbia University, Teachers College, 2009
Family: Wife, Amy; daughter, Medeleine
Activities: Playing soccer, gardening, fishing
Quote: "It's wrong to just come in with a vision of what I want this school to be and forcing it on them. We're in the business of producing bright, creative students."
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