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First in Class

Bruce Dennis and Paul Burke

By Paul Burke, Head of School, The Nightingale-Bamford School

In the early winter of 2008 I was summoned to Bruce’s office. I was a dean of students and a history teacher at the time. Packer had been my school for eight years. I loved it. All parts of it. The students, my colleagues — some of whom had become dear friends. The building itself. Packer was that rare school that had ambition in all the right ways. Careful not to be caught up with itself, here was a school that possessed equal parts humility and expertise, a rare sighting in New York’s private school landscape.

I loved Brooklyn, too. My wife and I had recently had twin boys, and we were enjoying starting our family on Clinton Street, in the shadow of Packer. It was within this context that Bruce slid me a job description for Head of Upper School at The Nightingale-Bamford School, and said simply, “Apply. You are ready. My Board might kill me, but you need to be a division head, and we simply don’t have that spot available here.”

Three years later, I called Bruce from the phone on my desk in Nightingale’s Upper School Office and I said, “Bruce, what do you think? Should I apply for Nightingale’s Head of School post?” He listened carefully and then suggested we meet. He spent no less than seven hours with me, preparing me for my interview at Nightingale. I was not sure I was up for the job, but Bruce thought otherwise. Herein lies the brilliance of Bruce the teacher and Bruce the leader: when it comes to growing people, he believes ahead of the evidence.

Bruce started his tenure in 2004 by holding a summertime retreat facilitated by the highly regarded school-leadership guru Barry Jentz. Barry introduced Bruce as “the best organizational thinker” he had ever known. I have worked in independent schools for the entirety of my career, and I join with Barry. Bruce is first in class. Bruce understands the totality of school leadership better than anyone I have met.

At Packer, Bruce has pushed power out to others, recognizing that the School’s ambitions could only be met by the efforts of many. He also grabbed the reins when the community needed the clarity of one voice, offering words that provide the comfort needed to educate three year olds and eighteen year olds.

Throughout it all, Bruce has been Packer’s unabashed front man. Those who have seen him in action know that that other front-and-center Bruce — the one from New Jersey — has nothing on our Brooklyn version. After all, Springsteen must only share a mic with Patty Scialfa or Little Steven, whereas Dr. Dennis found a way to orchestrate Packer’s conspicuously cacophonous band of thousands.  

He leaves after a historic tenure. Remarkably, and like few schools, the Packer of 2019 is both true and forward-looking. I give Bruce a lot of credit for this. For the many of us who count Bruce as our mentor, he has given us this final lesson: leave on top.