Less Management, More Leadership: An Interview with Reveta Bowers

Summer 2016

By David Maher

Reveta Bowers — head of school at The Center for Early Education in Los Angeles, California, for more than 40 years — might just be the busiest person in the independent school community. In addition to her work at the school, which has grown from a small preschool into a sought-after toddler-through-sixth-grade program of 538 students, Bowers has been involved in numerous educational organizations. For the last 15 summers, she has been the lead faculty member at the NAIS Institute for New Heads. From 1993 to 2003, she was an outside director of The Walt Disney Company. She is also a past president of the board of governors of the Fulfillment Fund, an organization that provides support programs for students in inner-city Los Angeles public schools; past board president of the Educational Records Bureau; past board president of the California Association of Independent Schools; and past board chair of the California Community Foundation. Bowers has served on the boards of the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University, the Coalition for Justice, NAIS, and the African American Board Leadership Institute, as well as at Harvard-Westlake, Brentwood, and Windward schools. She is currently on the board of governors of the UCLA Health Care Systems, Common Sense Media, the FEDCO Charitable Foundation, and Teachers College, Columbia University. More informally, she’s been a valued mentor to many independent school educators and administrators. 

As for her own education, Bowers attended the University of Southern California, where she received her degree in humanities. She later went to graduate school and completed a master’s degree in developmental psychology. In 1995, she was a Klingenstein Fellow at Teachers College. 

The 2015–16 academic year is Bowers’s final year as head of The Center for Early Education. Last October, David Maher, head of upper schools at Rolling Hills Prep and Renaissance School for Arts & Sciences in San Pedro, California, sat down with her to discuss her thoughts on the past, present, and future of independent schools. 

Maher: Forty years as the head of school at The Center for Early Education! As an introduction, can you say a little about how it all started back in the mid-1970s? 

Bowers: I was hired originally by the founding head of the elementary school a year after it opened. Shortly thereafter, the board decided to restructure what were then three very separate divisions — a nursery school division, an independent college division dedicated to training future educators and administrators, and an elementary school, which had been the most recent addition. The person who was then head came to me and said, “One day you’ll run this school.” And I replied, “No, one day I’m going to law school!” She just chuckled, but sure enough, four years later, she was right. It was an opportunity to move all three programs under a single administrator, with a single focus for the toddlers through sixth grade. Ours was the smallest independent accredited college in the Western United States, with our student teachers teaching during the day and getting their master’s degrees at night. 

Maher: One of the hallmarks of The Center has been to provide access to a wide array of students, and this continues to be the case. 

Bowers: Yes. To state this goal of broad access as a part of the mission was and is important. One of the first things we did was to put words such as inclusion and diversity and access into our stated philosophy and mission so we could be very intentional about the work we needed to do. Remember, this was 1976–77. Second, because we did not have as much diversity in the school or as much access as we wanted in the early years, we began an initiative to always pass a balanced budget rather than rely on the generosity of trustees to make up operating deficits at the end of the year. We talked about what we wanted professional teachers to look like. We aligned the salaries for the nursery and elementary schools. Prior to this, the elementary school master teachers were paid twice as much, even though the qualifications were the same. What made the education of our youngest children any different from a child in elementary school? This was a way to attract the best master teachers we could find. Because of our founding as an early childhood program, how could we not value our beginnings? 

Maher: In 2010, when you received the NAIS Diversity Leadership Award, you stated, “If you don’t push the diversity ball, we’ll never get to the place where we can kick it… over the finish line.” Have we moved closer in recent years to that line? What specific steps can independent school leaders take to get there? 

Bowers: It would be very hard to find NAIS-member schools that are less diverse now than they were a few decades ago, if we are talking about cultural and racial diversity. But when I talk about diversity, I’m talking about all kinds of diversity — socioeconomic diversity, diversity of class and religion, geographic diversity, diversity of family type. Are our schools more diverse? Yes. Are they looking to be more diverse in all the ways that matter? Some are, and some are not. 

Maher: There is more work to do… 

Bowers: There will always be work to do. And the more diverse your school becomes, the more work there is to do to become a well-functioning, inclusive community. Beyond the goal of bringing in a diverse array of adults and students is the matter of ensuring that all members of the community feel as if they can fully participate in the school, feel that they have all the rights and privileges and opportunities that any other community member would have. 

Maher: The Center for Early Education is undergoing some changes in facilities. Can you tell us a little about these changes and how you decided upon the make-up of the school’s new learning spaces? 

Bowers: I’m fond of saying that education has changed more in the last five years than it did in my first 35 years as a school head. The pace, the rapidity, the necessity for change is paramount. We have learned too much about what children need not to embrace change in our program, our pedagogy, and our facilities. We need flexible learning spaces to meet the needs of diverse learning communities. The way we teach demands more space — more flexible space — that enhances collaboration, cooperation, creativity, risk-taking, and the iterative process for developing deeper knowledge. When we started this plan five years ago, we spent a lot of time in a process that involved teachers, parents, members of our local community, representatives from the schools we feed into, city officials, talking about educational change and what we needed to look like. It’s those conversations that elevate you out of the mire of day-to-day operations and really inspire you to dream and be creative. Among other things, you can’t have these conversations without coming around to embrace the need to teach resilience and grit and determination. These are the skills we want children to have a chance to practice. It’s not that we weren’t doing some of this before. The changes we’ve made to our learning spaces are designed to help us more consciously encourage the development of such skills and dispositions. 

Maher: Are there other areas where you see facilities and programs diverging in the coming years to accommodate the new research on learning and to support a more diverse student body? 

Bowers: I think we are going to see the front of the classroom disappear. We are going to see classroom environments in which we have parents as teachers sharing their knowledge and experience. We’re going to see more of our own students become sharers and deliverers of content over time. Bringing in experts in the fields, at any time, broadens the students’ experiences as well. Want kids to take math and science seriously? Involve the person who designs rockets or roller coasters — and develop the students’ passions for the material we are asking them to learn. Ours is a more connected society; so we need our students to be more connected learners as well. We need to make the connection between the classroom and real life. If children are going to live meaningful lives, this meaning has to start in their school experiences, even at the youngest ages. 

Maher: You once stated that one of the shortcomings in schools is “too much management and not enough leadership.” How do you get new school leaders to recognize the difference? 

Bowers: One way is for school administrators to understand that the first leaders in our schools are our classroom teachers. If they have that ability to lead in the classroom, they have the ability to be leaders of our schools as well. At my school, even if teachers never want to be administrators, they still have the opportunity to participate as leadership fellows or in one of our leadership intern positions where they can get a grounding in the broader scheme of the school. Our leadership fellows are teachers who get an additional stipend for two years to lead a major school project. This year, they are exploring areas such as digital portfolios, which have incredible potential for our students. These leadership programs have been much more successful than anything we have tried previously in teacher orientations. It’s just a matter of acknowledging and engaging teachers as professionals, giving them a high regard among colleagues and parents. When we see them as learned professionals and partners, good things happen. 

Maher: In the Guide to Becoming a School of the Future, NAIS states that leadership has changed, and “gone are the days when a leader can dictate a vision and expect everyone to fall in line.” Is this the case? If so, what are the sources of new visions for schools, if it’s not from the leader? 

Bowers: It all starts with process, and it needs to be a collaborative one. As a school leader, you cannot know everything about running the school, but you had better know a whole lot more than one thing. It is increasingly important to understand what’s on your plate, and what needs to be delegated to others. I don’t think this just applies to the head of school, either. It’s true in the boardroom as well. We are deluding ourselves if we don’t think that today’s board of trustees, with its myriad responsibilities and duties, doesn’t require each trustee to demonstrate leadership as well. 

Maher: What skills and traits do you see as necessary to new school leaders today that may not have been mandatory earlier in your career? 

Bowers: New school leaders have to be resilient enough and need to be mindful in how the school is being experienced by a wide variety of constituencies. How does a new teacher perceive the school? How does a new toddler parent perceive it? How is the perspective different for the parents who are struggling to afford the tuition versus those who can easily afford the tuition and are giving well beyond it? How do we provide every child and every parent a fully immersive and fully inclusive experience in everything the school has to offer? How do we make sure the school leader is thinking about not just the parent body, not just the student body, not just the faculty, but about all of them as a collection of individuals with a spectrum of different needs, wishes, hopes, and dreams? This is different from the past. The new school head has to realize that he or she is running a small town, and our communities are far more diverse than they appear at first glance, and getting more diverse every day. 

Maher: What about the business aspects of leadership? 

Bowers: They’ve changed, too. Because schools must also function as the nonprofit corporations they are, today’s leaders also need a good sense of finance and budgeting, as well as some sophistication about legal and regulatory issues, especially in the area of labor law and personnel practices. Leaders also need to be good communicators both in writing and in their oral presentations to parents. Clarity of message is becoming increasingly important for school communities. It depends more on mindset than anything. Never has a growth mindset been more important than it is for today’s independent school leader. For instance, if we are not thinking what the school’s outreach involves or the school’s role in the broader community, we’re being naïve. In the past, school leaders were quite isolated from the broader community. But they can’t be anymore. That’s true in West Hollywood, but it’s true in Des Moines as well. 

Maher: You have been a model for so many women in terms of your leadership and vision for the future of independent schools. What are the most important issues that women leaders are dealing with right now? 

Bowers: What I just said about school leaders in general, of course, applies to women leaders. But specifically, I think it is increasingly important that women feel confident in their ability to run schools. Being clear and articulate about their compelling strengths personally, interpersonally, academically, and emotionally to run not only the business but also the programmatic aspects of schools is critical. Work and life balance questions are important for men and women. We must all learn to manage the imbalance that increasingly is part of our daily professional and personal lives. 

Maher: Lastly, you’ve been head of The Center for Early Education for more than 40 years, a lead faculty member at the NAIS Institute for New Heads for 16 years, a past president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, and you are currently on boards at UCLA Health Care, Common Sense Media, and Columbia University’s Teachers College, among others. What now? Can you tell us a little bit about your plans for this new chapter in your career? 

Bowers: I’m not going to retire. I see this as a wonderful opportunity to rewire. I’ll plug myself into different circuits, think about opportunities to serve, to teach, and to learn, whether that’s on corporate boards, at the grassroots level, or a university campus. There are all kinds of opportunities out there. Besides, nobody retires anymore! 

David Maher

David Maher is the director of upper schools at Rolling Hills Prep School (California).