Since 1990, Jane Shipp has overseen the growth and progress of Renbrook School. Now, after 47 years as a professional educator, it’s time to hand the reins to someone else.

When June 2010 rolls around, she will have served as headmistress at Renbrook for 20 years. She has worked in the independent school field since 1970.

Twenty years is "pretty long for an independent school. I loved it. I have lots of good memories," she said.

Shipp is not sure what path she will take after leaving her current post. Right now her focus is on continuing to do the job to the best of her ability.

"My last year is going to be busy," she said.

Dan Tracy, chairman of the board of trustees, has high praise for Shipp. He has known her since she first stepped onto the campus.

"I chaired the search committee which brought her to Renbrook. I’ve known Jane and worked with her throughout the past 20 years," Tracy said.

"She’s an excellent leader. She’s a great communicator. She’s very well respected by the (school) community."

He noted that she has a whimsical side and enjoys positive relations with the faculty. Tracy also praised her ability to raise funds. She’s a sound leader from a business perspective, too.

"She’s a very good manager. She understands the financial side of the school," he said.

The board of trustees is already moving forward with a search to find her successor.

Shipp reflected upon what it was like when she first came to interview for the job at the private school atop Talcott Mountain.

"What struck me was the tone of respect you could see between students and teachers," she said.

She noticed a sense of purpose as well as a sense of humor, two ingredients she believes are vital to any school. It left her with the impression that she could make good things happen and that she was the right person for the job.

"It’s all about the fit," Shipp said.

Over the years, "we’ve added a lot of buildings" to the campus. That includes creation of 14 new teaching spaces, a new gymnasium and a dining room/kitchen.

Ten years ago additions were made to the Beginning, Lower and Upper Schools. More recent additions are a math center, information technology center and the piece de resistance, a 14,000-square-foot "green" library with a geothermal heating and cooling system.

An Internet network was installed throughout the campus. Of less note but extra effort was repairing the roof of the main building. The roof is covered with 1930s-era clay tiles that are no longer manufactured and must be attached one at a time.

Renbrook serves children from age three through the middle teens, offering a program that runs up to grade 9. It draws students from more than 40 cities and towns all over central Connecticut, and even a few from Massachusetts. Enrollment is just under 500.

Tuition ranges from $5,000 to $28,300 depending upon the level. The higher end, which applies to grades 1-9, is less than what is charged by other area independent schools such as Kingswood-Oxford, Watkinson and Ethel Walker.

In her two decades as head of school, Shipp has witnessed changes in technology, culture, student and parent behaviors. She said she is particularly proud of the new 14,000-square-foot geothermal library, a statement in green technology, as well as the mathematics center, the addition of interscholastic sports in sixth grade, the introduction of foreign languages in junior kindergarten and kindergarten and various outreach activities.

"The pace of change has increased and technology is just one example of that," she said. "The teachers have laptops now" for lesson preparation.

"Ten years ago, we had just built a state-of-the-art computer lab. Now we have four," said Shipp.

The computer staff has increased from one person to six.

Another innovation was the installation of Smartboards in the Lower and Upper school classrooms. That was made possible through funding provided by the school’s Grandparents Association.

"We are also at the same time doing an endowment campaign" which seeks to raise $12 million. She said they are halfway to the target and the campaign deadline has been extended to take into account the sluggish economy.

"When I started teaching in the ‘60s teaching was an art form. Now it’s a science," she said.

Much more coordination is required to teach and develop an appropriate curriculum, she added. The goal is not just for children to learn, but for them to understand how to use that knowledge.

"Our curriculum is pretty traditional, but the way we deliver it is unique and creative and hands on," Shipp said.

For example, when studying such topics as the Civil War, American Revolution or immigration, students dress in costume and portray characters from those eras.

The headmistress said curriculum and teaching techniques have become more sophisticated with the passage of time. Part of that is because of the high expectations of the parents who send their children to Renbrook.

"There’s more anxiety around achievement now" on the part of students, too, said Shipp. "We have high-achieving parents and high-achieving kids."

Today’s parents are worried about the physical safety of their children, swine flu, terrorism and access to the best secondary schools. They also don’t want their children to fail or feel pain but Shipp believes those unpleasant experiences are vital to becoming a well-balanced and successful adult.

"You must learn to be resilient … you must learn to regard failure as an opportunity to learn something," she said. "We have a responsibility to parents to help them understand (child) developmental issues."

She noted that independent schools have the luxury of being able to work on character development with their students, something that is much harder to do in public school settings. Positive risk taking is encouraged.

There is also an emphasis on teaching children to give back to their community.

"Part of what you learn here is how to deal with other people. Everybody is doing service projects," she said.

It is important in her mind that Renbrook be not just a physically safe place, but an emotionally safe one as well. Another benefit the school offers is small class sizes, with an average of 14-16 in the Lower School and 12 in the Upper School.

Certain things haven’t changed at all over her two decades here. Among those constants are lots of reading, plenty of discussion and lessons in public speaking.

"They basics we’re trying to teach, they last forever," Shipp said.

Renbrook was founded in 1935 and has been at its present hilltop location for more than 50 years. The curriculum is designed not just for short-term teaching, but with the thought of what will matter to these students 10 and 20 years from now.

One thing that visitors can’t help but notice when they enter Shipp’s office is the vast collection of stuffed, porcelain and other forms of pigs. She credits her husband with starting the collection when he was a professor at Brown University and her students have added to the menagerie over the years.

Two of the more popular pigs are known to frequent campus events, including dances, graduation and other gatherings. They always dress for the occasion and one of them has an ongoing column in the school magazine.

Jane Shipp earned her bachelor of arts degree in 1962 with distinction in English and Latin from Rhodes College in Memphis and her master’s degree in English in 1970 from Brown University in Providence. She began her career as a first grade teacher in Markham, Ill.

She continued to teach different grades at various locations before becoming an administrative assistant at Lincoln School in Providence. In her 11 years at Lincoln she held several positions, including teacher, acting director of admission, head of lower school and assistant headmistress.

Shipp has also been involved in various volunteer activities over the years. Her current commitments are as a corporator of Hartford Hospital, elector of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and trustee of Jaffna College Funds in the island nation of Sri Lanka.

 

 

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