It was a shocking offer. Steve Loy was just 24 years old when the Head of the Brentwood School in Los Angeles offered him the position of High School Principal. Brentwood was transitioning from a small Military Academy to being one of the first independent schools in the area to build a co-ed strategy in a market that was, at the time, heavily single-sex biased. That extraordinary moment of trust and confidence left a mark on our OESIS Member School profiled Head, Steve Loy, of Rutgers Prep School (NJ). Six years later at Brentwood, another extraordinary moment of remarkable emotional self-control and grace was to have a lasting impact on his career, and we were to see the culmination of this courage again in 2021. Join us in the story of how Steve built upon these formative experiences in his decades of leadership to do something virtually no other Head we knew had decided to do.
Six years into his tenure at Brentwood while Assistant Head of School, the Board Chair recommended Steve for an open Headship at the Dunn School near Santa Barbara: the Board Chair had sent one of his sons there for its special skills and learning needs program. Steve thought, if he were to get this job at age 30, it was time to make this more than a career move. This would be his life’s calling. The first step would be to propose to Philomena, but only after asking her father and mother first, so that together they would take on this opportunity.
He came over to the Board Chair’s house to share the good news. He had accepted Dunn’s offer and Philomena and her family had accepted him. Steve tells the rest of the story:
And he wasn’t there. He was playing golf. And as his wife said, “he only plays golf when he is very, very angry.” So, I said, “well, I have some news I’d like to share with him. Maybe when he comes back, he could give me a call or you tell me and I’ll call him.”
So he called me and I said, “I heard you were playing golf. It couldn’t have been a very good day.” And he goes on….”No, my son just got expelled from Dunn.“
He was the one that had recommended me to Dunn. And now his son had been expelled. And he continued… “but my wife said you had some pretty good news for me.” I said, “yeah, I got the job at Dunn. And I’m getting married. Philomena and I move up to Dunn in a few months.”
And all he said was, “Why don’t you have the reception at our house?” He never once brought up his son being expelled. He never once even broached the subject of, I wonder if there’s a way to get him reinstated. And it was just a powerful example of someone who understood the boundaries involved in education, the risks that you can take that are legitimate risks, but also the things that you simply don’t do.
He easily could have suggested, even requested my assistance. And in some cases demanded that there’s this quid pro quo: you got this job. Now get my son back into school. He never even brought it up; instead, he offered his house for the reception. We stayed at Dunn for 10 years.
In 1992, Steve was appointed Head of the Rutgers Preparatory School (NJ). Years later, during the fall of 2020, independent schools around the country had been responding with compassion and outrage at the events surrounding the death of George Floyd. At a Board level, there was enormous pressure driven by the experiences, often documented in [email protected] accounts, describing the racist experiences students were facing or had faced. Heads were attacked for miswording public statements of support or showing a lack of commitment or compassion. The DEI Statement had become of greater importance and now appeared to be as significant as the mission statement. And yet there was a prevailing sentiment around the country that much of the reaction was hollow; that schools needed systemic plans for inclusion and belonging at the very least, and depending on their missions, for equity and social justice. Rutgers Prep and most New Jersey schools were no different.
At OESIS, we had concerns about what schools were doing or planning. Our partnership with Six Seconds, the leading global EQ Network, had helped us understand that most schools lacked the capacity for systemic change around most deeper learning initiatives. By capacity, we mean alignment with the true mission, internal support, and readiness. Leadership at independent schools tended to be hierarchical, top-down, and siloed into tactical functions— DEI was likely to be siloed as well. Further, the separation of powers meant that Board and Heads generally acted on a “need to know basis”. Schools were not used to the new public accountability they were facing as they had been protected by the traditional shield of accreditation. And yet everyone wanted a plan right now, even if it was likely to fail or simply fade. We wondered which schools would see things as we had learned: to build trust first, to connect with the community on an emotional level around psychological safety, and to build the capacity before launching into solutions that were otherwise destined to fall woefully short or even fail.
Steve was the first Head in our network who had decided on community emotional readiness for a new systemic plan around DEI, with its mission-appropriate form as a pre-requisite. A sine qua non. He put it to us this way:
I don’t know how you build the second story until you build the first. I don’t know how we can have an effective, prudent conversation about issues regarding equity and social justice and belonging if the individuals having those conversations don’t have a genuine sense first of how they manage and wrestle with what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling. The path forward is not a quick fix. That path forward starts from the inside; a collection of building blocks that start with understanding your own inner building blocks that then how you connect with others.
Was it those formative experiences at Brentwood that led Steve to decide on a community-wide trust model that first legitimized a student or teacher or family boundaries? Had they led him to a place quite apart from the knee-jerk programmatic responses (curriculum changes, extrinsic statements, and lots of recruitment) of many elite schools, in particular?
Earlier this year Rutgers Prep School embarked on a unique journey to build the emotional readiness for something remarkable. It had a good base, but Steve considered that insufficient: the community was known for its generosity and kindness. Even accreditation visitors pointed to anecdotal evidence of such feelings on campus. Many schools had done climate surveys, but he wanted to really understand and measure it in a way that was normed and valid. We asked why that was so important:
“Because we don’t want to lose the spirit and climate that is here. To simply assume that we’re always going to have it, I think, would be presumptuous. I don’t want to dissect it to the point where the joy is taken out, but rather than “dissect”, the verb for us is we want to really “understand” it. We want to know what we can do better in order to move forward. We were not afraid to take the time to try to better understand what’s going on.”
And there are several key features to this capacity-building exercise at Rutgers that have struck us as even more remarkable and would be the envy of SEL and DEI leaders hoping to implement a mission-aligned plan at their school. This is why we chose Steve to profile in this issue of OESIS Network Magazine.
The trust model starts with Steve’s own learning and emotional growth. He has made it a model and priority to assess his own social-emotional inventory. He has committed to being an equal learning participant in every learning group pathway and learning milestone that the school develops to advance the ball in the DEI and SEL areas. That humility to say that “I am a work in progress” rather than a solutions provider is at the core of the message. The DEI team is as vested in the emotional process as its leadership and the whole leadership team has access to coaching and support. They know that ultimately one values what you measure, and their goal, like others, is a dashboard that has valid data. This data is normed and is designed not as a marketing piece, but as a tool for intervention and programmatic change, leading to a set of competencies that align the community to the mission and give the students a good sense of themselves.
There is a thick atmosphere of uncertainty and stress that has invaded school spaces and society at large. Communities are looking for Heads who clearly see the fabric binding their communities and can knit the new threads of support. Being brave is not being first to the solution but having confidence in your capacity to open the opportunities. Being braver can mean being safer first. Steve Loy has that clarity.