Leading with Head and Heart

After a year-long search process, thirty-plus candidates, and countless Zoom meetings, Commonwealth welcomed Jennifer Borman ’81 as its sixth Head of School for the 2021–2022 academic year. Keep reading to acquaint yourself—or reacquaint, as the case may be—with our first alumna leader...

Jennifer Borman remembers the thrill of being in a Commonwealth classroom, ideas and debate whizzing through the air at a dizzying clip. “Those are my most vivid and most cherished memories,” she says. “Just the exhilaration of learning.”

Forty years later, Borman returned to Commonwealth ready to welcome new generations of students to those same lively classrooms.

Welcome (Back)

This isn’t the first time Borman has circled back in her career. 

Her first job after graduating from Brown University in 1985 was teaching English at School One, an independent high school in Providence, Rhode Island. Several years and graduate studies later, Borman opted to return to Brown to work at The Education Alliance, where she evaluated educational innovations focused on adolescent literacy, teacher development, technology, and school improvement. She then brought those lessons back to School One as Head of School in 2007.

Fourteen years into that tenure, Borman was just starting to think about the next phase of her career when she saw the Head of School opening at Commonwealth, announced in January 2020. “When I saw the Commonwealth opportunity, I jumped,” Borman says. “I think Commonwealth is a one-of-a-kind school and my personal paradigm of an excellent high school.” 

Her appointment followed an intensive ten-month-long search led by a Board of Trustees–appointed Search Committee working in concert with a Faculty and Staff Advisory Committee and consultants from executive search firm RG175. A competitive applicant pool yielded three finalists, including Borman, who met with community stakeholders via a veritable gauntlet of nineteen Zoom interviews and forums over the course of three days. Borman was unanimously voted into the position by the Commonwealth Board of Trustees in early October 2020. 

Rediscovering Commonwealth’s “Ecology”

As the school’s first alumni/ae leader, Borman looks forward to “learning the Commonwealth of today,” she says, seeing what's different, what's the same, and “hearing stories about why those decisions have come to be.”

While she may bring a unique familiarity to the headship, Borman’s top priority, at least in her first year as Head, is to connect with people—students, faculty, staff, parents, alums—and relearn the school, inside and out.

“I feel like schools are an ecology, and you need to understand all the relationships and interdependencies,” Borman says. “You can't really make any kind of changes or adaptations until you understand holistically how the school works, where its greatest strengths lie. That's going to take a little while and going to be fun.”

Prominent in that relearning has been immersing herself in the DEI work already underway at Commonwealth. It was clear to Borman, throughout the interview process, that the community was deeply committed to working on diversity issues. “I could feel it from students, from teachers, from staff, from the Board, from alumni/ae,” she says. “DEI work is never done, and I don't feel that I have all the answers by any means, but I think the work goes nowhere without leadership. On the other hand, it goes nowhere without collective engagement. So it really is both top down and bottom up.”

Motivated to Lead

Borman demurs when asked about her leadership style—the answers tend to devolve into stereotypes, she says. Still, she is quick to affirm her commitment to balancing the human needs of managing an organization with the pragmatic.

“I feel like we all need to be accountable to the promises we make,” she says. “So whether it's a work commitment to each other or a promise we make to students or families, we need to gain trust by following through.” 

Feminist ideas of leadership resonate with her, Borman says. Broadly speaking, those involve valuing relationships, collaboration, and “allowing people to bring their personhood into their work lives.” As a leader, she tries to meet people where they are rather than put them in rigid hierarchies, to let talent flourish and fuel further innovation. 

“I love working with smart, committed people,” Borman says. “It pushes my own thinking and gives me a broader repertoire of ideas to draw from when I'm around people like the ones who work and volunteer at Commonwealth.” 

Borman knows, better than most, just how powerful Commonwealth’s uniquely inspiring environment can be. She is still struck by the cognitive leaps adolescents can make—if the conditions are right. Helping cultivate those conditions has become her life’s work.

“I am motivated by the experience of seeing children grow into their capacities as writers, as computer programmers, as historians, as linguists,” she says. “I love seeing them gain skill and confidence as they move from 9th to 10th to 11th grade and grow into a sense of themselves.” 

Stepping into the role after her predecessor Bill Wharton’s storied twenty-one-year tenure, Borman appreciates that she inherited a school with an exemplary faculty, an engaged student body, a supportive parent body and Board, and a strong financial position based on years of strategic decision making. And she knows she has big shoes to fill. 

“I will not change everything you love most!” she says with a laugh. “And I am excited beyond words.”