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Challenging times for St. Edward’s

St. Edward’s School, fighting off declining enrollment and in the midst of a national search for its next leader, is currently being run by longtime faculty member Bruce Wachter after former Head of School Charles Clark stepped up his departure plans and left the school three weeks ago.

Clark, who led the private school for six years, had announced in October he would be leaving at the end of the school year. However, by mutual agreement with school trustees, he ended his tenure Dec. 31 so he could start the new year pursuing other opportunities.

At the same time Wachter was elevated to temporarily replace Clark, Peggy Anderson, a former principal of Lincoln Park Academy, a prestigious public school in Fort Pierce, was tapped to fill in for Wachter as head of the upper school – a move designed in part to increase enrollment at St. Ed’s by students living outside of Indian River County.

Anderson, whose sons Ryan and Sean graduated from the school in the early 1990s, called St. Edward’s “a hidden jewel,” and said she hopes to “spread the word” about the school by emphasizing its devotion to athletics and the arts, as well as its small classes. “People are not as aware of it as they should be,” Anderson said.

Wachter said St. Ed’s still is hoping to have a new Head of School in place for the start of the next academic year. “The school wants to have the best individual available,” he said. “The school will be very diligent in its search for the right person.”

The search is taking place at a time when St. Edward’s is facing challenges, including soft enrollment and fund-raising, related to the cooling economy. Current projections for the next school year point to a smaller student body, according to Bob Gregg, director of admission and financial aid.

“All of my colleagues around Florida are dealing with the same issues,” Gregg said.

If no candidate for the position of Head of School “surfaces or is not the right fit,” trustees will continue school operations with the interim head and develop a new search schedule for fall 2009, according to documents posted on the St. Edward’s Web site.

Wachter is part of a nine-member search committee comprised of administrators, alumni, trustees and representatives from the faculty and a parents group. Together, the group will recommend to school trustees a top candidate to lead the 825-student school.

“Collectively, we represent various perspectives within the school,” Wachter said.

In interviews and letters to stakeholders, school officials said they planned to seek input as the search moves forward.

“As we look forward to 2009, the board will be continuing its search to find the right candidate to take St. Edward’s School to yet the next level,” board of trustees Chairman Jim Linus wrote in a Nov. 24 letter to parents. “As we continue in this process, we will be providing periodic updates to you.”

Educators’ Collaborative, a national consulting and headhunting group, is handling the search. Consultants hoped to begin winnowing the list of applicants this month. After the consultants vet the applicant pool, they will present the search committee with their top recommendations.

According to a tentative timeline posted on the school’s Web site, finalists could visit St. Edward’s campus during the next several weeks. The search committee hopes to recommend a top candidate to the board of trustees by early March.

A posting for the St. Edward’s position on the group’s Web site described the ideal candidate: “The board of trustees and search committee seek a visionary academician whose skills and experience include financial acumen, development and marketing.”

The job description also outlined some of the issues unique to leading a school located on a small barrier island in a state rocked by turmoil in the real estate market: “Challenges for Florida schools have been especially keen in recent years (hurricanes, real estate decline, and now the current national economic climate).”

In an October letter to the school community, Clark sounded an optimistic note about the search for his successor.

“This will be an enlightening and energizing process about which you will be fully updated and continually involved,” he wrote. “We look forward to a bright future as we take our school forward. This will be an exciting time for St. Edward’s School.”

Clark announced his resignation in early October, writing in a letter to school stakeholders that he planned to step down on June 30.

“My decision is based on what is best for the school and my family at this time,” Clark wrote. “I am looking forward to new challenges in independent education where I can continue to work to make a difference in the lives of children, parents, and schools just as I have done at SES.”

In his letter, Clark noted his ties to Vero Beach, where he moved with his wife, Gail, after leading Cincinnati Country Day School. Gail Clark teaches fourthgrade English at St. Edward’s Lower School.

“With the many friends and associates that Gail and I have locally, we will often be in contact with the school and, above all, with those who have put St. Edward’s best interest first,” the former head of school wrote. “Finally from the bottom of my heart, I thank you all for the wonderful experience Gail and I have enjoyed here at St. Edward’s.”

Weeks later, school trustees said Clark would instead step down during the winter break.

“Earlier this year, Dr. Clark expressed to the board an interest in exploring the possibility of a consulting relationship with a school leadership organization following his headship at St. Edward’s School,” Linus wrote in his November letter. “Given the amount of time it would take for Dr. Clark to explore and consider these types of opportunities, we have agreed to allow Dr. Clark to complete his responsibilities to the school on Dec. 31, 2008.”

Trustees tapped Wachter, then the head of the upper school, to serve as interim head of school. He assumed the role on Jan. 1.

“The board felt that this would be positive for both Dr. Clark, who can travel without worrying about his obligations to the school, and the board, who can appoint an interim head as it seeks and considers new head candidates,” Linus wrote.

Wachter called the December move “a decision between the board of trustees and Dr. Clark.” The former head of school stepped down in December “to pursue some other opportunities,” school spokeswoman Elizabeth Thomason said.

In a Nov. 24 e-mail message to St. Edward’s faculty, Clark announced he would be stepping down early.

“I want to be the first to inform you that the board of trustees and I have decided that I could begin pursuing future options for next year; and therefore, it is in St. Edward’s best interest for me to officially step down as of Dec. 31, 2008, as head of school,” the message began.

He pledged to work closely with Wachter during the transition.

School officials declined to comment further last week. Clark could not be reached for comment.

“We know that Dr. Clark will be successful in finding the leadership and consulting opportunities he’s been so interested in over the years, or other opportunities that will allow him to use his years of experience in a position that is as challenging and rewarding as his headship has been here,” Linus wrote in his November letter.

The next St. Edward’s head of school will face challenges related to the cooling economy. At the same time, the school is formulating a strategic plan “that will serve as St. Edward’s compass for the next five years,” according to school documents. The strategic plan will outline goals for the school in upcoming years and help school officials in their decisionmaking regarding issues such as enrollment and fundraising. The process is taking place alongside the search for a new head of school.

“In the spirit of transparency, an accurate picture of the school must be given to prospective candidates so that we get an optimum match,” school documents state.

Marts & Lundy, a consulting firm for nonprofits based in Lyndhurst, N.J., is working with St. Edward’s to devise the plan. The school paid approximately $33,000 for the consultant’s services over a six-month period, according to school documents.

Enrollment will be a key issue as the strategic plan is drafted.

Gregg, director of admission, said the slowdown in the construction and real estate industries have impacted enrollment. Other changes are taking place before the new head of school is selected.

School officials hope to extend the school’s reach to potential students living outside of Indian River County. Part of Anderson’s role is outreach to St. Lucie County parents and potential students. Of the 825 students at St. Edward’s, 54 currently hail from St. Lucie County, Gregg said.

After retiring from Lincoln Park last year, Anderson did some consulting work for St. Edward’s before being offered the interim position at the upper school. She brings years of experience to her new role.

During Anderson’s nine-year tenure at Lincoln Park, the school was recognized for eight years as an “A” school by the state. Moreover, Newsweek listed Lincoln Park several times as one of the best high schools in the nation. One of Anderson’s final accomplishments on campus was the effort to have the school recognized as an International Baccalaureate World School, a distinction noted by its challenging curriculum.

“She’s no stranger to our culture,” said Thomason, the school spokeswoman.

Editor's note: Vero Beach 32963 incorrectly spelled the name of Acting Head of School Bruce Wachter in the Jan. 22 print edition. We regret the error.