Friday, July 19, 2013

Tom Hudnut retirement

July 11, 2013 | 2:05 p.m.

Even though it's addressed to our daughter, we're always excited when the Harvard-Westlake alumni magazine arrives.

We always sneak a look at the “class notes” to see what her friends are doing, then leaf through the magazine to see what's going on at this awesome school.

The magazine is called “Harvard-Westlake Life.” Unlike most school development magazines, it is edited entirely by current students.

This month, the cover features an “unfinished portrait” of outgoing headmaster Tom Hudnut. The portrait was painted by graduating senior, Wendy Chen.

Tom Hudnut is retiring. Apologies for the cliche, but Tom Hudnut is a true Renaissance man. A Princeton graduate, with a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, he has worked as a history teacher, opera singer and prep school headmaster. He supports athletics. More importantly, we learned from the magazine, he met his wife at a Janis Joplin concert.

I'm a big fan of Tom Hudnut. During our daughter's high school years, we watched Hudnut set high standards for his faculty and staff. He expected the faculty to be friendly to the students, but to act as professionals. He created a school environment where achievements in physics, poetry and the arts were equally respected with CIF championships.

The students were not spoon-fed. If a student wanted to change a rule or a practice, they were advised of the process to make that change. There were forms to fill out, meetings to attend. Maxwell Gladwell would have been proud — it was all about empowerment. Every student had the potential to be an outlier.

During the college application process, parents were gently told to bug out. This was to be the student's experience. This was to be their achievement, not ours. It was scary at first, but there were ample college counseling resources, with quadruple the staffing of most private schools. The system worked.

We also knew that we could always pick up the phone and speak with a dean, a teacher or make an appointment with the headmaster. No waiting.

In the spring of our daughter's junior year, one of her classmates was killed in an auto accident. At the time, Harvard-Westlake had two chaplains, an Episcopalian priest and a reform Jewish rabbi. With very little fanfare, prompt, professional and effective resources were provided to the students.

A few weeks later, Hudnut opened his desk drawer and showed me a small slip of paper. On it, he had written the names of a dozen or so students who had died since he began his career. He had added the name of our daughter's classmate. He said that he often took out the list. It gave him perspective.

Here was a man who cared about his students.

In the spring of our daughter's senior year, her brother was diagnosed with cancer. Throughout all this, Hudnut and his staff made a point of touching base with us, without our daughter's knowledge, to make sure that her needs were met.

Some people might say that such actions are easier for the staff of a private school, with all of a private school's money and resources, but there are some things that money can't buy. Character, reliability and responsiveness are qualities that cost nothing in dollars. Taking a stand. Doing the right thing. Those qualities are priceless.

On the other hand, the requirements of standardized testing dominate our public school landscape. The current contracts and statutes can allow a substandard public school teacher to remain employed. Here in La CaƱada, we've faced these issues.

Last February, a Harvard-Westlake student, Justin Carr, Class of '14, died during swim practice of a hidden, undiagnosed cardiomyopathy.

Tom Hudnut decided to “convene a panel of medical experts to consider a detection program for heart defects in student athletes.” He wants the school to be a leader, just as it was with research into concussions.

As ever, with little fanfare and good results: a quintessentially Hudnutalian response.

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