In July, Patricia Talbert Smith accomplished one of her main ambitions in life.
“I knew I always wanted to run my own small school or country — whichever came first,” said Talbert Smith, who took over this summer as Head of School at St. Francis Episcopal Day School in Potomac Village.
With 204 students, St. Francis is a small school, but Talbert Smith’s arrival is a big deal. She left a very good position — academic dean at the Norwood School just down the road — to take over at St. Francis.
Imperial ambitions aside, Talbert Smith said she came to St. Francis because she believes it’s headed somewhere.
“It’s going to be a destination school. It’s going to be a school that everybody wants to attend and everybody wants to work in, period,” she said.
Established in 1988, St. Francis has preschool classes for 2- and 3-year-olds and grades one through five, with no plans to add additional grades. The current structure is right, Talbert Smith said: It allows the school to focus on doing what it does very well and it allows students to develop identities in an intimate environment but still grow and change those identities in middle and high school elsewhere.
Talbert Smith grew up in Suitland, Md., where her parents still live. She attended public school through sixth grade and National Cathedral School in Washington from seventh through 12th. As the only child of older parents, her parents wanted to keep her in the Washington area, Talbert Smith said, so they made her an offer. If she attended Trinity College, they would buy her a car.
She took it, and still has the car.
Talbert Smith studied in Avignon, France, for four months in college and went to Nice on a Fulbright grant after graduation. She became a French teacher and is friends with her French teacher from NCS, who has taught at the school for 40 years and remains there now.
She married her junior high school sweetheart, Christopher Smith, whom she has known for 35 years.
Talbert Smith’s first act as new headmaster was to help give the school a facelift. There was no big-ticket item, but expanded offices, clean hallways, and new paint did a lot to change the atmosphere inside the school building adjacent to St. Francis Episcopal Church on River Road.
It’s likely a harbinger of things to come. Talbert Smith hopes to fill the school to its maximum enrollment of 250, and eventually oversee new construction to match the growth.
In an interview last week, Talbert Smith discussed those plans, her vision for curriculum, and what not to do in admissions interviews.
Q: You’ve been at independent schools in the area for 20 years. What did you know about St. Francis and how did you come here?
A: I’ve always known about it. It was founded in 1988 and I certainly became more aware of it when I was working at Norwood down the road. But it was sort of one of those nice little schools that was there. I want this to be more than a nice little school that’s there. I want people to know exactly who we are, where we are, what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it. So a lot of what I want to do is get us out there. … Right now people say, ‘You’re behind the church somewhere.’ We’re a mission of the church, but together we’re going to be so strong. … I think even when you change heads, you bring a different vision to how you’re going to move the school forward. It think it’s a faculty that’s ready for lots of professional development, lots of trying some new things.
We’ve also been known as a preschool. And we are. We’re a fabulous preschool, but we’re so much more than that.
Q: What’s your vision for the school in 10 years?
A: The vision is in 10 years and probably less than 10 years, it’s going to be a destination school. It’s going to be a school that everybody wants to attend and everybody wants to work in. Period. It’s going to be so tight in terms of curriculum and taking advantage of being in Washington and trying new things. But also there’ll be things that you can count on. A lot of that has to do with the basics — the reading, the writing and the math. But also the moral development, and being able to teach in a Christian context, where you’re learning the Bible stories, where you have chapel in the morning, where you’ve got a good foundation, before you head off to the big bad world of middle school.
Q: What about transitioning out of a school that only goes through fifth grade?
A: [Somebody] asked me, ‘Any plans to add a sixth through eighth grade?’ No. There are schools that do that. But ending at fifth seems just right, especially when you end and allow somebody then to have some say in what they do next, but then go off and reinvent themselves, whether it's for three years at a school like Norwood … or a school like Sidwell which now takes 12 kids in sixth grade, so sixth through 12th.
Part of what we also want to do is go out and present our students to their potential sixth grade schools. ... Really know them so we can go out and hand-carry their transcripts but then really talk about them. So we’ve been doing mock interviews with them. …It’s been fascinating to watch because we’re looking with that critical admission officer eye.
This morning I was getting this [fidgeting motion] with the chair so at the end of it we critiqued it and did the role-playing. I said so tell me what was going on with the hands there. He said, Oh I like to fidget. I said, ‘You know what, when you’re in your admission interview maybe not fidget because they may think you’re nervous.’ I said, ‘What else could you do?’ He said, ‘I could sit on my hands.’ I said, ‘Great!’
Q: What schools do St. Francis students typically feed into?
A: Everywhere you would think. I think our biggest school into which we feed right now is St. Andrew's Episcopal School. We have eight kids in the current sixth grade there. So an awful lot of them go to St. Andrew’s. And they go to the schools that you would think, especially up and down this corridor—so Bullis and Landon and Holton, Norwood. But we want to expand. It’s OK to go across the D.C. line. It’s okay to go across the bridge. What I want to make sure is that we’re finding the exact right match for every student.
As an independent school mom, it’s funny how you get your mind set a certain way and you sort of think you know the way it's going to play out and it may not play out that way at all.
For many parents this is the first independent school they’ve been in, so a lot of our job is to teach them how to do independent school and teach them how to not think so much about what they want but what’s right for their kid.
Q: You mentioned a lot of independent schools. Do children transition to public school as well?
A: In looking at the stats for the last couple of years, it doesn’t seem like they do that so much and my experience at Norwood where I was academic dean for the last five years, this last grad class at Norwood — a quarter of them were going public. So I don’t know that it’s been promoted so much as an option, as I will be promoting it. [Financially,] it’s along haul to do this.
Q: What are your recollections of first coming to St. Francis to interview?
A: The people were just plain nice. The faculty was nice, the parents were incredibly nice and the students. … It seemed like they all knew where to go, what to do. They were so confident. They looked like they were in a place where they were loved, and nurtured. It felt like a safe place. … Ever since I’ve been associated with the school it’s felt comfortable.
Q: You want to expand foreign language education here, right?
A: How long can the French teacher teach in a school where there’s no French? I don’t think very long. We’re working on that.
Starting them early is absolutely the right thing to do. But then you’ve got to decide what you want. What do you want them to do at the end of it? Do you want them really to be able to communicate in the foreign language? Do you want them just to be familiar with it? Do you want to prepare them to study foreign language in middle school?
It will have implications, even space implications. You’re much better taking a foreign language in a classroom so when you go through the door suddenly you’re in Spain or France, versus the teacher who comes to you with a cart where it sort of seems like a special that’s just passing through. And I think kids take it more seriously when you’ve made a commitment that way.
Q: You’ve talked about professional development. Do you encourage the faculty to take risks and try new directions?
A: It’s scary to think about teaching something different or to go pursue something you haven’t ever pursued before. I want to opt model that myself because I do lots of professional development myself. I hope that by modeling that they’ll see that that’s a possibility and then bring it back and then have those philosophical discussions at faculty meeting. Not the nuts and bolts — carpool, who’s covering carpool, but what do you think about this philosophically? As a school, is this a direction that we want to move in? We’re getting there. My impatience is wanting to do it all this year. And as the rector keeps telling me, Rome was not built in a day.
Q: What is the profile of a student that comes to St. Francis?
A: Interesting question when you look at 2 1/2- to 3-year-olds. They’re just developing. I almost think for those kids it’s almost more what kind of family is coming here, because ... at 2 1/2 to 3 you don’t really know who you have as a learner.
Certainly families that want that hands-on approach, that want small and nurturing and want to be in close contact with the school. I’ve written more letters in the last … eight weeks than I ever have in my whole career. … I want people to always know what’s going on. I want to be absolutely transparent
Q: What do you anticipate in terms of construction?
A: There are some things that we don’t have. You can see. Where’s our athletic facility? We think for boys and for families who really want to stay here through fifth grade, they want to see that we’ve got a facility that will really allow them to do some things — not in a hall. We make good use of the space that we have … The most important thing the church did was buy some space. … The house next to us is church property. They bought the property, we now have the field space.
You don’t need to get ridiculous. You don’t need to be over the top, but you need enough space for your program.
The fact that they’ve got those portable building says to me, because we own those, that there’s a commitment to our configuration.
I would say within the next 10 years. Because by then with demographics, with our approach to doing admissions, we’ll really know what our potential is. Right now the expectation is that we can enroll up to 250 students, and I want to see us get there. Lets look at our potential, lets maximize that, and then lets see what that means for us. Because if that indeed means two third, two fourth, and two fifth grades, we’ve got to have ample space for those kids and the right kind of space.
Q: African-American heads of school are still pretty rare. Do you see your being African-American as significant?
A: Pretty big. For this church and this school to give me that vote of confidence and to do it in a way where they assured me it didn’t matter and in fact only enhanced what I could do and what we could do together, it made me feel very much that that was something they recognized. It is what it is and let’s move forward and build on that. That was a nice feeling.
There will be more, because when there’s one there eventually is another one.
In general there are more men going into heading independent schools than women. You hear that stat and you think wait, haven’t we moved along from that?
At this new heads institute which was run by the National Association of Independent Schools, there were 70 new heads: 17 of then were women, and out of all of them … only two were of color. One was a Hispanic woman from New York and the other was me.