People, Positivity, Power Walking

Susan C. Bosland led NCS through an unprecedented time with a can-do spirit.

Head of School Susan C. Bosland remembers a tradition she had with her mother: they would browse through antique stores together, splitting up to peruse the old furniture and household items. Then, they’d reconvene to compare notes, almost always picking the same favorite item in the store. Usually it was something with a broken piece or an odd shape—something that told a story. It could be a table with a cut off corner seemingly made to fit in a custom space or a wooden spoon with a stain from scooping raspberry jam.

“To me, that’s what made it a treasure, because it was loved, taken care of, and cherished. It wasn’t technically as valuable, but it told a story.”

Bosland’s mantra of excellence, not perfection, translated well to her work leading National Cathedral School through perhaps its most difficult period in history. When nothing was normal, perfect was unattainable, and adaptation was necessary, Bosland’s optimistic attitude helped carry NCS through a global pandemic, a national reckoning with systemic racism, and total reimagining of educational models.

Building connections
When Bosland began her tenure as NCS’s interim head in July 2019, the Head of School Search Committee continued its work in identifying the next leader of the school. Bosland’s task was to steward the school community through the upcoming school year and to make progress on the 2018-2023 Strategic Plan priorities.

She spent the fall and winter visiting with local NCS graduates and traveling to New York and Boston, where she cultivated and strengthened long-term connections. She met regularly with St. Albans and Beauvoir’s heads of school to coordinate more strategically across the Close, forming relationships that would become pivotal during the pandemic. Under her leadership, the administrative team and task forces set to work developing new curricula, policies, and programs to enrich and enhance the student experience.

Soon after the 2019-2020 school year began, the search committee fulfilled its task by identifying Dr. Elinor Scully as NCS’s 12th head. There was only one problem—she wouldn’t be available for another academic year. The Governing Board came to Bosland with a heavy request: Would she stay on for an additional year and become NCS’s 11th head of school? Embracing her strength as a servant-leader, Bosland said yes and was formally installed in a November ceremony. Little did she know of the challenges that lay ahead.

Rough sease
“Sue navigated us out of a huge storm,” says Pedro Martinez, director of buildings and grounds, referring to the complete overhaul that COVID-19 brought to schools.

Martinez is a member of the Health, Safety, and Facilities Preparedness Committee, formed in March 2020 to help understand and implement the constantly evolving health and safety guidance on COVID-19. Bosland met twice a week with the committee and supported her administrative team as they reopened school, a herculean and months-long effort that often required she and her teammates get deep into the weeds.

One of NCS’s consulting medical experts, Dr. Lucy McBride ’91, jokes that Bosland should have an honorary medical degree for all the knowledge she accumulated about masks, air filters, viral transmission, droplets, distancing, and more.

Bosland had to make tough choices as she and her team worked to reopen school, a phased approach that began with remote-only and then evolved to remote-plus, blended, and full in-person learning models this past academic year.

Early on, she implemented a guiding principle of “people first,” which she returned to repeatedly as NCS encountered new hurdles. This philosophy led Bosland and the Governing Board to create a Pandemic Relief Fund, established to ensure that no family would have to leave NCS during the pandemic due to financial hardship.

The NCS Cares committee was also formed to provide food, technology, and more to help struggling community members get through difficult times.

“‘People first’ was essential and at the core of our actions as a school community. There was a real balancing act between being compassionate and moving forward because of the fear factor and the uncertainties and complexities presented by COVID-19 and the reckoning with racism at a national level,” Bosland recalls.

Summer 2020 brought a racial reckoning to the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and NCS was no exception to the examination of systemic injustice. Although NCS had laid the groundwork toward becoming a more inclusive environment, that work became more focused and urgent during Bosland’s tenure. She and the senior administrative team outlined 10 action steps toward fulfilling the Strategic Plan mandate to advance an inclusive educational environment; the Governing Board formed a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) task force, which will become a standing Board committee, and NCS began reviewing its student handbook and policies with a lens toward fairness, equity, and inclusion.

Knowing that not every decision she made would please everyone, Bosland strove toward transparency by providing online spaces for faculty and staff to share concerns and questions, whether about DEI, coming back to campus, or any other issue. She launched a weekly newsletter to families and employees to update them on health and safety protocols and spoke regularly with parents who had questions, suggestions, or issues that needed her attention.

“If someone was bringing joy and calm to this year, it was Sue. Her calmness kept me able to focus on the day-to-day challenges of my work during a pandemic. Her years of experience were evident every day,” says Wendy Wilkinson, director of enrollment and chair of the NCS Cares committee.

Students top of mind
Amid all the planning to reopen school, Bosland knew many students were suffering: “If you didn’t have a sibling, your parents were working all day, or you couldn’t see your friends, there was just a lot of alone time.” Bosland is proud of how the school deployed its resources. “We have a counselor and a chaplain for every division,” she says. “We have the advisor system, and there were a lot of check-ins built into the schedule.”

Bosland recalls sitting in on one such advisor meeting and enjoying the rituals that had developed, even while students were apart. When students returned to the Close full time in the spring, she could be seen at nearly every in-person event, power walking around the Close in her tennis shoes.

“Sue really cares about all the girls,” says Governing Board Chair Ellen Jakovic. “How effervescent she is when she’s just been out with the seniors, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. The infectious energy and love of our students that she brings is wonderful.”

Even after spending most of her tenure leading the school through a global pandemic, reimagining four different models of education, adhering to and enforcing strict health and safety guidelines, reckoning with systemic racism, and more, Bosland remains upbeat.

“We were tremendously fortunate to have had Sue leading the school during the tumultuous past two years. She was really able to work with our community so that we could offer the best of ourselves and our school, the best education for our students, and the best environment for our families,” says Jakovic.

When Bosland is asked whether, had she known what she was signing up for two years ago, she would have accepted the job as interim head of school, she gamely replies, “I wouldn’t even hesitate.”

“To me, we all went through a pandemic, so I couldn’t think of a greater group to go through [it] with,” she says.

Written by Hannah Rhodes, this story originally ran in the Summer 2021 issue of NCS Magazine.
    • NCS's 11th Head of School, Susan C. Bosland