metroMagaziNe • The Spirit of omaha
New Head of ScHool SYLVIA RODRÍGUEZ VARGAS PH.D.
AS BROWNELL-TALBOT SCHOOL NEARS ITS 150TH ANNIVERSARY IT HAS A NEW LEADER TO CHART THE COURSE
SPECIAL EDITION: BROWNELL-TALBOT SCHOOL
metroMAGAZINE • AUG 2012
cover story by LEO ADAM BIGA & CATHY TIBBELS | cover photography by ANDREA HOIG
CHANGE AGENT Brownell-Talbot School, founded in 1863, moved several times before fixing on its present site, 400 Happy Hollow Blvd., in 1923. It became coeducational in 1952 and gained independence from the Episcopal Church in 1967, though it still maintains a chapel program to foster spiritual and moral growth. Brownell-Talbot is making history with its new head of school, Brooklyn native Sylvia Rodríguez Vargas, the first person of Latina heritage to lead the venerable private institution. Rodríguez Vargas began her duties in Omaha July 1, arriving at the school as it enjoys record enrollment - more than 460 students - and 33% racialethnic diversity. Brownell-Talbot’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity influenced her taking the job. “The fact that Brownell-Talbot was founded as an all-girls school when very few schools in the country educated young women is extraordinary. What impresses me most is the ever-present focus on forwardthinking vision and the emphasis on leading in education, not just for the students who attend Brownell-Talbot, but for the community at large.” The school’s partnerships and community outreach appeal to Rodríguez Vargas. She also appreciates that Brownell-Talbot is grounded in core values around its Episcopal tradition. Serving students from preschool to grade 12 aligns with her experience and the school’s holistic approach to education appeals to her personal and professional style. “We educate the whole child, preparing each student for college and for life,” she said. “These values speak to me.”
AT HOME When named a finalist for the head of school position last fall, Rodríguez Vargas visited with her husband, Brian Luis Vargas, an information technology specialist. Meeting a cross section of BrownellTalbot’s extended family made her feel at home. “I met students and families, board members, teachers, and staff. It was great timing to be on campus with so many engaging activities taking place – a chili supper, homecoming, grandparents’ day, and SPECIAL EDITION: BROWNELL-TALBOT SCHOOL
more. The experience, the reception, the interaction reaffirmed for me that there was a real connection. We came away from the experience feeling very positive. I knew that if they were as positive about me as I was about them, then this was the place!” They no sooner returned to Columbus, Ohio, where she was completing her doctoral dissertation at The Ohio State University, when the call came offering her the job. She didn’t hesitate to accept it. “You just walk by faith,” she said, adding that she has taken on the role certain in the knowledge that this is where she’s meant to be. Brownell-Talbot Board of Trustees president, Charles (Chip) Vrana said a national search identified several “excellent candidates” and Rodríguez Vargas stood out as the one “most suited to take the school to the next level.”
THE EXPERIENCE, THE RECEPTION, THE INTERACTION REAFFIRMED FOR ME THERE’S A REAL CONNECTION.
~ SYLVIA RODRÍGUEZ VARGAS PH.D.
SHOULDERS OF HERITAGE University and studied a semester at the Her path to this point has been full University of Puerto Rico. In working of “enriching” experiences. She keeps toward her first master’s degree from close to her family’s working class roots The Ohio State University, she studied and Puerto Rican identity in her personal life and academic specialties of in Mexico and Spain. She earned her second master’s degree and teacher Latin American literature, history, certification at Columbia University. culture and language. Most recently, she completed her Ph.D. She grew up in New York City in a at The Ohio State University. bilingual home where her parents Her leadership skills showed early. stressed education to her and her She became department chair in her younger sister. “In my house, you were expected to earn excellent grades. It was 20s at Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, New York and became always about doing your best and middle school director at the Columbus giving your best always. That was a (Ohio) School for Girls in her 30s. Her very important part of my upbringing,” many honors include a Klingenstein said Rodríguez Vargas, who attended Fellowship from Columbia University public schools. in independent school leadership. “For me what made all of the difference is what my parents modeled. “That was an outstanding program that prepared me for the next set of It was about the foundations of a good challenges and opportunities,” she said. education and treating people with Her most recent post before moving to respect and dignity, being open to all Omaha was as associate head of school kinds of differences knowing people and dean of academics at Saint Mary’s will see you as different too, until they School in North Carolina. get to know you.” At Brownell-Talbot, Rodríguez The education that Brownell-Talbot Vargas looks forward to carrying on the delivers fits her wide-open embrace of vision and progressive practices in new perspectives. The seeker in her education, while upholding the longmakes her ever curious and energetic. standing values and tradition of the Whether earning a degree or doing a school. “I’ve had outstanding job, she says her mantra is “get it done opportunities and an amazing career up and do it well.” to this point, but nothing compares to what is in front of me in Omaha and at PATHWAY TO LEADERSHIP Brownell-Talbot School,” she concluded. Inheriting the leadership role of a “The students are driven and so capable. legacy school has meaning for The faculty is knowledgeable, Rodríguez Vargas, whose education is innovative and caring. The parents, robust and whose experience includes alums and Trustees have been teaching and administrative posts at incredibly welcoming and supportive. private schools. I’ve hit the ground running and I don’t She earned her bachelor’s degree see stopping anytime soon!” from New York’s Binghamton m 2
metroMAGAZINE • AUG 2012
BROWNELL-TALBOT SCHOOL, WHICH BEGAN AS THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH-SPONSORED GIRLS BOARDING SCHOOL BROWNELL HALL, HAS SEEN CHANGES APLENTY IN 149 YEARS.
metroMagaziNe • The Spirit of omaha
CLASS OF 2012 EARNS $2.66 MILLION IN SCHOLARSHIPS
MICHAEL RECKER RECEIVES TRADITION OF EXCELLENCE AWARD
BROWNELL-TALBOT SCHOOL’S Class of 2012 shone both academically and in extracurricular activities. Of the 32 members of the Class of 2012, 84 PERCENT received college scholarships and together they earned more than $2.66 MILLION in academic scholarships. The seniors’ composite ACT score was 27.2. Brownell-Talbot students participate in a variety of activities and clubs, such as football, basketball, volleyball, speech, robotics, and more, allowing students to explore all their interests and discover new passions. GRAD SPOTLIGHT:
BRITT FOSSUM Britt Fossum received a $2,500 National Merit Scholarship, a $20,000 scholarship from the University of Chicago, and the University of Toronto. Brownell-Talbot gave Britt the Lisbeth Cherniak Award for the senior girl with the highest academic average and awards in English, history, science, and French. She will BRITT FOSSUM claSS of 2012 attend Columbia University in New York City. “Brownell-Talbot infuses this contagious love of learning,” said 2012 grad Britt Fossum’s mother Sandra. “The teachers know the students as individuals and help them tap into their interests. That personal attention translates into opportunities that go beyond high school.” In Britt’s case, her teachers at Brownell-Talbot JOSH COHEN tapped into her science and claSS of 2012 math acumen, encouraging her to double-up on math classes (which she loved), and to participate in the robotics program. “The School provides so many ways for the students to get involved and to grow their self-esteem, confidence, and learning opportunities,” added Sandra. Britt’s involvement in a club led to a summer research internship at
Boston University. “This and other experiences at Brownell-Talbot School assure us that she’ll be successful at Columbia University.”
EVERY YEAR Brownell-Talbot School honors exceptional teachers with the Tradition of Excellence Award. One of this year’s honorees is Michael Recker. His faculty responsibilities include World Language Department Chair, teaching French I-IV, AP French, and Forensics. He and Chris Hamel coach the six-time state champion “Yakking Raiders,” and he has coached, sponsored, and organized the Optimist Club Oratorical Contest.
JOSH COHEN Josh Cohen received a scholarship from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Honors Program. In addition, he received the ECYBERMISSION Application of Science, Math, and Technology Scholarship. Josh participated in several sports and activities at Brownell-Talbot. Josh will attend Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. “Josh elected to transfer to BrownellTalbot from Westside for high school,” said Bob Cohen, the 2012 graduate’s father and a 1973 graduate himself. “From day one, Josh felt at home in the Brownell-Talbot environment. The small size combined with top-notch academics, great teachers, and challenging course offerings, along with multiple opportunities for extracurricular activities (sports and speech in his case), has been amazing. Motivated students can take advantage of many opportunities, some of which they may not have been able to participate in at a large public school – varsity athletics, for example. We have seen Josh grow up in the last four years and attribute a lot of this to his Brownell-Talbot teachers and coaches and the stimulating interactions with so many bright students that the small size affords.” 3
“While I am new to the School, Mike Recker’s reputation has preceded him,” commented Head of School Sylvia Rodrìguez Vargas. “I understand he’s the kind of passionate teacher that gives his all to the students and the School.” Mike Recker’s track record illustrates that fact. With the introduction of the House System in the Upper School last year, he became Dean of Hitchcock House, and he and Chris take students on a favorite Gala Fright Night tour around Halloween each year.
metroMAGAZINE • AUG 2012
“He’s at the top level in terms of the expertise he brings to his teaching, in his genuine concern for students, and for his professionalism. He is a seasoned teacher, motivator, and role model to our students – organized, attentive, enthusiastic, and tireless in his pursuit of excellence,” said a colleague at awards night.
EARLY EXPOSURE TO BIG, CURRENT CONCEPTS PREPARES STUDENTS FOR COLLEGE AND BEYOND.
places on exposing young children to the beauty and excitement of the world outside the classroom. The preschoolers benefit from Artists in Residence, local experts in the fine and performing arts that come to campus to share talents and help tap into talents and interests of the young child.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION FOR STRENGTHS AND TALENTS THAT WORK AT COLLEGE AND BEYOND. As children grow and ascend grade levels at Brownell-Talbot School, or as they transfer in to enjoy school in the upper grades, they benefit from the same commitment to educating the whole child, tapping into skills, strengths, and interests and enhancing the important social and emotional faculties of each one. Very early LEARN. THINK. ACT. LEAD. on, before high school, each student is Projects in preschool through grade 12 THAT’S WHAT BROWNELL-TALBOT take on big, meaningful, and current asked to consider what college holds for STUDENTS DO. concepts and reinforce 21st Century him or her. Individualized college counseling via courses takes place starting education practices such as project-based in 8th grade. learning, teacher as “guide on the side,” Stacey Evert commands the classes, (vs. “sage on the stage,”), and infusing which include discovering strengths, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). investigating college options, unearthing “Our teachers, those with years of experience, and those with less experience, “killer” essay topics and perfecting the writing of such, and more. Parents are kept come to School every day with a fresh, To tour campus, meet with vibrant, enthusiastic passion for being here. in the loop to the extent they desire via a faculty and students, and learn The energy with our children is incredible,” robust website where the student’s choices more about our programs. are listed and as the students progress said Lower and Middle School Principal toward junior and senior year, how the Kami Landenberger. myriad application requirements are being “Our teachers value the child and they Schedule your tour today. taken care of. teach to the whole child to impart “We’re by no means holding hands here. academic and life lessons early on. Our In fact, we don’t have the kind of students student population is very diverse, which – or parents – who expect that,” said Stacey. we use to widen the holistic learning “Our students are driven and academically experience for us all (teachers included!),” focused, and we help ensure they are aware she added. of all the college choices out there, and to “This School, even for children at the discover which ones – and it’s not always youngest ages, provides opportunities to the most popular ‘big name’ schools – fit solve problems, think critically, and use their personal learning styles, social needs, words, wits, and minds to get along and and career paths best. Then we connect the grow along together,” said Sandy Mellili, students with the colleges and get to Junior Kindergarten Teacher and Early matches that in the end are so right.” Childhood Coordinator of the School. “The college counseling program was a “Everyone is committed to providing an big ‘seller’ in having our children attend individualized approach to teaching that is Brownell-Talbot School,” said Wendy enriching and highly age-appropriate,” she Wiseman, mother of a 2012 grad and two added. “Our teachers and assistants are other students who recently transferred to thoroughly knowledgeable about each the school. “There are a lot of colleges to student and we apply our expertise toward at EducationMattersBlog.com choose from, and a lot of competition. each child’s development and skill The online forum that discusses acquisition.” At Brownell-Talbot School the It would have been easy to make an easy current issues in education today. decision for our oldest, but with the good curriculum flows from one grade level to guidance of Stacey Evert and Jacque Byers the next, beginning in preschool, so there Learn more about the (who guided our daughter through her is a strong continuity year-to-year and essay development), we found a college not among teachers. 21st Century Education Lecture Series, on the original radar, which is perfect for The curriculum is rich and robust for sponsored by Brownell-Talbot School. her. She wanted to go there. They wanted the young ones with those as young as her. It really was a great match and we are junior kindergartners attending classes in looking forward to her success there in the music, French, PE, library, computers, and four years to come – and have Brownellart. Two field trips each year reinforce the Talbot to thank for that.” lessons and the importance the School m
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