BY JANICE LLANES FABRY
Last month, the Board of Trustees of School of the Holy Child enthusiastically and unanimously appointed Colleen Pettus as the new Head of School. Pettus is not new to campus, having been at the school since 2012, when she was asked to head the Middle School. She went on to become Associate Head of School and Dean of Faculty, and since last May has served as Interim Head.
“This is the highest honor of my professional career,” said Pettus with pride. “When I received the news, I was tremendously grateful and somewhat emotional. And then as Ellen Fahey-Smith (Board Chair) and I say, it was onward!”
The appointment is the culmination of a stellar career in education. After graduating with a Master of Arts degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, Pettus supervised student teachers through Teachers College, Peace Corps Fellows, and NYC Teaching Fellows Programs. She also taught 10th– and 11th-grade English. She served as a Principal of Saints John and Paul School in Larchmont for three years before coming to Holy Child.
“Education is about relationships,” Pettus said thoughtfully. “I always loved working with young people and was aware from a young age of the potential teachers have to be truly impactful in this world.” Her mother was a teacher in Brooklyn, where she grew up.
About Pettus’ appointment, Dr. Fahey-Smith, noted, “We are confident that under Colleen’s leadership, Holy Child will thrive in accordance with our mission to promote academic excellence and social responsibility while building trust and respecting the dignity of every human being.”
As Interim Head and now Head of School, Pettus has been lauded for making the very best of this aberrant school year. The entire student body of 375 girls has been on-site four full days per week. Wednesday, a remote learning day, is also reserved for meetings between students and faculty, testing, virtual visits with outside speakers, the ninth grade’s on-site retreat, and limited sports activities.
“I can’t say enough about how the faculty rose to the occasion and met all the challenges by keeping the girls at the center of their work,” explained Pettus. “While Wednesdays gave us the opportunity to collaborate, plan, and address all aspects of our programs, we treated our classroom days as sacred.”
Leaving no stone unturned, she and the faculty took this year’s initiatives a step further with professional development.
“There was a lot to incorporate from the lessons we learned last spring when we went remote on a dime,” she said. “In addition, we wanted to make the experience as balanced and enriching as possible. Exciting professional partnerships set us apart.”
Indeed, Pettus and her team took every opportunity to evaluate the curriculum’s “massive breadth of material” with fresh eyes that encouraged them to contemplate the “whys” behind what they do. To that end, she and the faculty collaborated with the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College to examine the role of traditional grading and assessment and its impact on learning and emotional well-being. Currently, the fifth grade is experimenting with narrative feedback as opposed to grades.
“We have been involved in incredibly reflective work and having conversations about what grades really show us about our students,” she noted. “So far, the fifth graders are responding positively with more attention on learning habits and skills. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
In another partnership with the University of Notre Dame, the Science and Religious Studies departments are examining the compatibility between science and religion, reason, and faith.
“We’re always looking to how our curriculum can reflect the mission and values of our school and our ever-changing world.”
Recommitment to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives has also been a predominant part of the school year.
“Our DEI work, through education and committed partnerships, helps further a meaningful sense of belonging here at Holy Child. It is aligned with our mission to create women of conscience and action,” she noted. “Our culture of warmth, support, and empowerment, which applies to the entire faculty and student body, is very deliberate. When people feel supported and heard, they are willing to take risks.”
She and her husband Steve Pettus, Dean of Students at Fordham Preparatory School, have three sons and one daughter, now a junior at Holy Child.
“Having a daughter here gives me the opportunity to see the school through her eyes and as a parent, I can appreciate the full experience and opportunities for growth for all of our girls.”