By Catherine Brewster
“I’m happiest,” says Commonwealth’s new Head of School, “when I’m learning—engaged emotionally, analytically, technically, logistically. That’s more fun than replicating on Wednesday what you did last Wednesday.” Commonwealth helped Jennifer Borman ’81 discover this about herself as a ninth grader decades ago; now she’s no less eager to immerse herself in the school as it is in 2021.
In high school, Ms. Borman lived with her mother on Beacon Street and her father on Beacon Hill. She says of herself, “No one would have looked at me as an eighth grader, and said, ‘Wow, that kid should go to a high-powered school.’” She describes her life before Commonwealth as “the apotheosis of progressive education in the 1970s: dogs wandering through the classroom, teachers breastfeeding, parents bringing in roadkill for us to dissect. It did what it was supposed to do, which was to keep you curious, but I literally didn’t know what a noun was.” She thinks it’s possible that the head of her middle school, who had taught at Commonwealth, “talked Charles Merrill into admitting me.” Ninth grade was rough; the teachers “weren’t generous with grades, but they were generous with their attention.” Thanks to their “patient, expert instruction” in class, at lunch and after school, she filled in enough gaps in her understanding of fractions and even arithmetic to get through algebra. Learning two foreign languages illuminated the structure of grammar in English. Prophetically, she sometimes got to school on roller skates. Most important, “falling in love with ideas created tremendous momentum, and I respected my teachers so deeply that I wanted to earn their respect.”
Boston, Providence, East Lansing, Providence, Boston
In Ms. Borman’s choices and experience since Commonwealth, you can hear a lot of echoes of that arduous, joyful process. She went on to Brown and studied poetry . She also started to confront “why I had allowed myself to be so terrified and avoidant” of math and really learn calculus. Graduate school at Michigan State, in teacher education and education policy, led her back to Brown to work for the Education Alliance, an organization that partnered with schools and state education agencies that were working to make their instructional practices more equitable to students from all backgrounds. There, she spent ten years researching and evaluating programs that included adolescent literacy, teacher learning, and educational technology.
Visits to schools all over the country gave her, she says, “a bird’s-eye perspective on the education sector: its structures, its inequities, its fads, and the profound disrespect faced by many teachers and students.” Meanwhile, she was married to a teacher who has spent his career in urban public schools; their older child has become an elementary teacher in a public school in Baltimore. Perhaps more than the average future head of an independent school, Ms. Borman was developing a broad and deep sense of the landscape of American education and the stubborn tensions within it. She also had classroom experience herself: right after college, she taught English for four years at School One, a small, progressive high school in Providence that grants financial aid to 65% of its students.
In 2007, Ms. Borman became School One’s head, ready to redirect her energy toward “making a real difference for a small number of kids.” In her new job, math and creativity became equally important. She started a 501(c)(3) through a state tax-credit program to raise additional money for students at the bottom of the income scale, and launched programs offering intergenerational courses during the school day and evening creative-writing classes to adults and teens. She oversaw the school’s purchase of new space and the renovation of the old. She also built up enough cash reserves so that when the ultimate “rainy day” arrived, in the form of the pandemic, “some decisions were easy,” like buying enough HEPA filters and hiring an intern to help with social distancing.
In fact, Ms. Borman says, good leadership in “ordinary” times doesn’t fundamentally differ from good leadership during a pandemic: gathering ideas and perspectives, operating in multiple dimensions while always considering the human impact of decisions, communicating frequently, listening actively, being kind. At the same time, of course, the world was changing. George Floyd had been murdered, independent schools around the country had to take hard looks at their culture of privilege, and Commonwealth was grappling simultaneously with recommitting to its mission of serving students from diverse backgrounds, with reopening safely, and with searching for its next head of school.
An Old But New Landscape
Ms. Borman had always seen in Commonwealth “a marrow-deep commitment to intellectual excellence and spirited embrace of community, within and beyond its walls.” Though she says she’s still “not altogether sure how I ended up there” at 14, she can clearly identify now why she’s coming back: particularly in the context of the upheavals of 2020, the school’s commitments matter to the much larger world. “We need really well-educated people who can solve complex problems and look at issues through multiple lenses.”
Many of these future problem solvers, as you have read elsewhere in CM, are already fiercely engaged in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work at Commonwealth. The conversations they’ve initiated have asked us all to better understand the landscape we inhabit every day at school and how it feels for the different kinds of people who move through it. That effort to understand, Ms. Borman has emphasized, will rank highest in her priorities for her first six months. She expects “a steep learning curve,” one she’ll enjoy as she and Commonwealth’s new Director of DEI, Lisa Palmero McGrath delve into the work that’s already begun. Among other things, she wants to know what’s “front of mind” for different people: D, E, or I? Curriculum, access, representation? She is particularly committed to accelerating efforts to recruit more low-income students of color, but “we also have to make sure they feel fully welcomed and visible once they’re here.”
Last fall, Ms. Borman remarked to the faculty and staff that she saw her own role as a DEI leader not as that of a heroic, inspirational figure but rather as the person who should keep us from getting distracted and enable everyone’s faithful effort. That entails setting goals and asking ourselves “at regular junctures: What have we accomplished? Where did we hit that brick wall? And what would we try next?” She notes that “the work is never done.” Asked what she’s learned herself over the last few years, she cites her developing understanding of gender identity and what it’s like not to be neurotypical. Most of all, though, “What I have seen over and over is that when kids come into a learning environment where they feel like they can be themselves—when they start to drop defenses they may not have even been aware they were carrying—they open up to learning in beautiful ways.” In order to experience that freedom, that energy liberated when a student is not constantly on guard against feelings of failure or rejection, “it’s so important not to be just one of one or two or three, but to have people at school you can truly connect with.”
I asked Ms. Borman, in light of the last tumultuous year, where she thought the passionate outpouring of support for greater inclusion might lead us. She said she sees adolescents as much more politically engaged than they seemed ten years ago. They’re informed by the past, she said, but haven’t “had their hearts broken” by living through it; they’re less cynical and more hopeful as well as more determined.
The farther horizon, Ms. Borman has always emphasized, will come into focused view only after she’s thoroughly learned the terrain of the school as it is now. Like so many of us, she longs for the return to fully in-person teaching, the classrooms in which students don’t have to fight so hard to keep themselves engaged, the faculty meetings with “a million ideas bouncing around.” She can also imagine students and staff feeling buoyed by a certain amount of pride just at having gotten through the pandemic: “Look how we were able to pivot, what we were able to invent, look at our fortitude!” As for her own role, one of her hopes is to feel, on the average day, “extraneous.” In a good school, “everything good happens because faculty and staff feel empowered and supported and students feel inspired and valued”; much of a successful leader’s work is to ensure, often invisibly, that that’s the case.
Ms. Borman is also looking forward to sitting in on classes and getting a deeper feel for what students are learning across their years at Commonwealth (“and this time I will actually understand algebra,” she laughs). She noted that several texts she read at Commonwealth made a lasting impression, Jane Eyre most notably. She still draws inspiration from Jane’s quiet determination to be true to herself. “On the other hand, I remember hating Tess of the d’Urbervilles and wanting to throw it in the Charles River.” A voracious reader, Ms. Borman says that sometimes a book finds you at the right moment in your life, or you circle back to a book and it speaks to you in a different way over the years. “Right now, I’m re-reading Charles Merrill’s The Walled Garden and it’s thought-provoking,” she says. “A good school is constantly evolving, constantly asking itself whether it’s fully living up to its mission. It’s looking backwards to its traditions and forward as our society changes.”
Catherine Brewster is an English teacher and twenty-one-year veteran of Commonwealth School.