COLORA — When Virginia Kennedy took over as the head of West Nottingham Academy almost exactly a year ago, she anticipated many challenges the role would bring on. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit just three weeks later, though, she found herself in uncharted territory.
“Within five or six days, we went from thinking — this is something that’s out there and on the rise but we don’t really have to worry about it, to — wait a minute, it seems like it’s more than that, to — nobody can come back,” she recalled. “I have to compliment the team here, because we worked together and just said, ‘Okay, we can make this happen.’”
In the year following, Kennedy reopened for in-person learning amid the pandemic, launched an ambitious $2 million fundraising campaign and laid groundwork for long-term sustainability initiatives while piloting the school through one of the most turbulent years in its history.
‘A teacher at heart’
Kennedy joined West Nottingham Academy as an English teacher in 2016. She rose to become the English department chair and launched a school-wide environmental sustainability program. She came to the school after leading Otsego Land Trust, a conservation nonprofit in New York, but had worked as an educator for three decades.
“I fell in love with West Nottingham,” she said. “I’ve taught in public schools, private schools and at the college level, and West Nottingham is one of the best — if not the best — places that I’ve ever been in the classroom.”
Part of that is the school’s more than 275-year history, which is not lost on Kennedy as she walks the halls and campus grounds. Part of it is the diverse staff and student body, including a large population of international students. And part of it is the freedom to innovate and think creatively in the classroom which comes with being an independent private school.
“I believe in the cumulative legacy of human history, both positive and negative, and West Nottingham is that,” she said. “It’s a really special place.”
For Kennedy, West Nottingham Academy is a place where the local meets the global.
She recalled taking students down to Annapolis before the pandemic to testify in support of a constitutional amendment affirming environmental human rights. It was important for students to make their voices heard, to see democracy in action and to understand how they can affect change, Kennedy said. One student from Uganda, a country facing stark challenges to its democratic system, was struck by the experience.
“Here is this young woman from Uganda in Cecil County experiencing democracy in Annapolis — that’s what West Nottingham does,” Kennedy said. “She’s going to be a leader, and part of her experience and learning is going to come from Cecil County. That’s amazing to me.”
Kennedy said she brings her perspective as a teacher to her new role, adding that she remains first and foremost an educator. West Nottingham Academy, she said, is a fertile ground for growth and knowledge.
“It’s had its challenges, and certainly is challenged now with this pandemic, as every other school is,” she said. “But what’s been done here, what’s happening here now and what can be done here is just incredibly filled with possibilities.”
‘A monumental, all-consuming effort’
Stepping into her role while COVID-19 was just a name in the news, Kennedy quickly realized her goals for her tenure leading the school would be complicated.
“Being the head of a school is a big challenge if you’re going to jump in and do it right,” she said. “Putting COVID on top of that was just — I hesitate to dwell on it too long, or I would say to myself, ‘What am I doing?’”
That said, if she’d had a crystal ball which could show her the events of the following year, would she do it again? Of course.
Kennedy explained that the school shifted almost overnight to virtual learning. They were not prepared, and not sure how long it would last — she hoped at the time that things would be back to normal by the fall. More than anything, she remembered simply holding the ship steady amid a chaotic few weeks.
“People were very nervous and scared about the pandemic, there was death happening all around, we were trying to find the right information and getting different information from our leaders,” she recalled. “It was a crazy time.”
But they made it happen, with teachers coming together to make a quick shift to an all-virtual learning system for the remainder of the semester. Many international students were in different timezones, and teachers rose to the challenge of creating schedules that could accommodate students around the world.
Over the summer and into the fall, another big lift followed — preparing for a return to in-person learning, even as schools all over the country seemed likely to continue virtually as the pandemic surged.
Being a small school, and a boarding school no less, offered some relief — they could create a little bubble, following safety strategies to guard against an outbreak on campus. Kennedy emphasized that it was an all-hands-on-deck approach.
“I’m the head of the team here, but this was not a one-person job,” she said. “It was a monumental, all-consuming effort.”
Amid the onset of the pandemic, Kennedy set out to raise $2 million with the Give2Million campaign, the largest fundraising goal in the school’s history. She said that this is a moment to think big, not small.
“What I wanted to do the minute I walked in the door — COVID or no COVID — was figure out a way to put the school on a sustainable financial track,” she said. “The Give2Million campaign was about saying to the board and to the staff, ‘Let’s be ambitious.’”
Kennedy brings a sustainability mindset to more than just financials — she also prizes practices that are environmentally-friendly.
“There needs to be a paradigm shift in our own ethical relationship to the Earth,” she said. “We encourage our community and our students to adopt an ethical orientation to the Earth that sustains their lives, so that when they leave here, they say things to me like, ‘It’s very hard for me to throw my food in the garbage.’”
She said that our relationship with the Earth should be one of reciprocity — mutual benefit, something that she tries to teach students through being intentional with the school community’s waste, being aware of energy use and maximizing the natural resources on campus.
This includes the trees — West Nottingham Academy’s grounds have some very old trees dating back centuries and some very young trees planted by students just in the last year. For Kennedy, trees are a marker of history, and she often reflects on just how much some of the school’s oldest trees — Maryland Champions — have lived through.
“It’s a great metaphor for our lives,” she said. “It’s a lot of determination, it’s some luck — the right weather, the right conditions, the richness of the soil. it’s a great metaphor for education.”
In the youngest trees, which will eventually form a public arboretum on campus, Kennedy sees the future of the school reflected.
“Can West Nottingham Academy be here when these trees we planted are 200 years old, and what would it take to do that?” she said. “One of the things that would take is being able to navigate things like COVID.”
Part of looking ahead is looking behind. Kennedy also helped launch a historical research project titled “I Am West Nottingham” that will seek to tell the stories — good and bad — of the school’s centuries of alumni.
“This project is going to tell a story, not a fairy tale, but a story of history, transition, transformation, challenge, losing direction and finding it again,” she said. “That’s the story of this school. I think it’s the story of the country.”
She reflected on the historic nature of her own place in West Nottingham’s History — she is the first woman to lead the school. She said that if the school is going to move into the future, the staff must look like the community they hope to create.
“I don’t often think, ‘Wow, I’m a woman in this role,’” she said. “I’ve just got to get the job done, and I can do it as well as or better than anybody else.”