One of a Kind
In his 15-year tenure, Bruce L. Dennis led Packer through two successful strategic plans, expanded its academic and cocurricular programs, doubled its endowment, renovated three-quarters of its existing spaces, and expanded the campus beyond Joralemon Street for the first time in its 174-year history. The world beyond the “old grey ivied walls” took notice.
Sarah M. '13, Keegan M. '13, and Danielle H. '13 in one of the newly renovated chemistry labs in 2011.
The Early Years
One of Bruce’s first commitments as Packer’s ninth Head of School was stated even before he was hired. In a meeting with faculty when he was a finalist, he vowed to improve compensation. “The salary scales...were abysmal for an independent school,” said Chris Rush, Lower School Librarian. “People that had been here for a number of years were making less money than people that were coming in. It was not equitable, and Bruce recognized that. He made a promise.”
He executed on that promise within a few years of his arrival in 2004. “He made it so that everybody felt that they were valued,” said Ken Rush, former visual arts teacher. “This was a lot better than [his] being a cheerleader. And in return, Bruce demanded the very best from his faculty,” continued Ken. “He was clearly the most gifted administrator that one could imagine, and I think that that was an example of it.”
Ensuring fair compensation fulfilled a cornerstone of the 2006-11 strategic plan, Securing Our Future. Another goal of Bruce’s earlier years was setting a course of continuous improvements to the School’s physical plant, which he initiated in 2007 and continued nearly every summer through 2018, thereby minimizing disruptions during the school year.
The award-winning design of the Middle School building, which opened in 2003, Geoff Pierson’s last year as Head of School, had established a remarkable standard for modern learning spaces that showcased the historic architectural details of the structures in which they existed. During Bruce’s tenure, 84% of the campus was renovated with the same respect for Packer’s history, including nearly every Lower and Upper School classroom, the Science Building [above], the visual arts studios, the libraries, and the main hall.
Defining Packer’s educational objectives was another goal that Bruce set in the first strategic plan. Along with an ambitious plan to map the entire curriculum schoolwide, Bruce oversaw the creation of a new mission statement. Unlike many such ‘North Star’ documents, the mission statement written by faculty and approved by Bruce and the Board in 2008 has the unusual distinction of being regularly invoked not only by administrators and faculty, but even by students. Its eloquent and memorable coda — Think deeply, Speak confidently, Act with purpose and heart — captures the essence of what a Packer education aims to develop in each child.
Surprise! In February, the faculty and staff threw Bruce a birthday party in the Blackburne Library.
Uncanny Leadership Qualities
Many who have worked with Bruce feel that one of his greatest gifts is his recruiting ability. “If had to put a fine point on
[his legacy], I think I would say it’s really attracting, retaining, and filling the School with incredible talent,” said Andrea Kelly, former Assistant Head of School and now head of school at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, NY.
“Those are the people who are on the front line, they’re in the classrooms, they’re leading and developing the culture of the School. That is the most important asset that we have as an institution,” said Trustee OhSang Kwon P’17, P’22. “And I credit Bruce with having made those hiring decisions.”
“Leadership embodies many things,” said former Board Chair and parent Ronan Harty P’15, P’17, P’20, “but I think it’s the ability to inspire, the ability to connect with people, the ability to speak plainly and speak truthfully — and that people trust what you’re saying. Those are qualities that he displayed from the first time that I saw him.” He also invoked Bruce’s compassionate and confident handling of sensitive issues and moments of tragedy over the years. “It’s largely behind the scenes. Consistently it was a calm, methodical, step-by-step [approach]: ‘Let’s analyze what we have here, let’s do what we can right now, let’s be honest about what we’re facing.’ Bruce’s ability to communicate in a time of crisis was magnificent.”
Former Trustee Carla Shen ’95 P’27 added, “Whether he is giving a extemporaneous talk to parents, or presenting to hundreds of prospective [families], or sending email communications about difficult topics, he just has this way with words. He is honest and straightforward, but in the right moments, he knows exactly when to insert just the right amount of humor.”
Senior administrators saw Bruce’s deep experience as a school leader on a daily basis. “He does not get rattled. He has seen it all,” said Elizabeth Hastings, Associate Head of School and Academic Dean. “There’s a sense of security and comfort because of his leadership.”
Those who worked closely with him also benefited from his legendary mentoring. Andrea Kelly noted that six Packer administrators who worked with Bruce went on to become heads of school elsewhere: Paul Burke, José De Jesús, Martha Haakmat, Bill Knauer, Matt Nespole, and herself.
“He’s really good at being able to see what one’s strengths are and being quite candid when it comes to the areas for growth for an individual,” said Semeka Smith-Williams, who was a Lower School teacher and diversity coordinator before Bruce appointed her to be the Director of Diversity and Equity. “He’s been able to groom a lot of leaders in his time here at Packer. That’s something that will definitely be a part of his legacy.”
Under Bruce's leadership, a wide range of academic expansions were introduced. The Advanced Topics program emphasized student inquiry through a range of high-level courses, including Dr. Sarah Strauss's Advanced Topics in Conducting Scholarly Research in the Packer Archives, in which students present original research at the Brooklyn Historical Society, where Packer's archives are housed.
Growth and Stability
Throughout the 2000s, Packer, like Brooklyn itself, was a fast-rising star. More families in the borough began to seek out an independent school education there. In addition, more Manhattan-based families looked southward for school options. A 2012 New York Times article even noted a debate that had been simmering for several years: could Packer continue to improve upon its programs, and increasingly compete with top independent schools across the city, while retaining its character as a warm, relationship-driven neighborhood school?
Trustee Cynthia Gardstein ’66 IV Ac addressed this question affirmatively. “From the alumni point of view, although the School is great deal changed, we have a really good sense that the foundation that we remember is really being nurtured and advanced.”
“Bruce has done an amazing job preserving Packer’s core values,” agreed Carla Shen. “[My daughter] is learning the same core values that I learned years ago…. Packer is still committed to a wonderful education, but also to diversity and inclusion and building a really strong community.”
Though the 2008 economic recession did slow the growth of admissions interest for a short while, by 2011, the student body exceeded 1,000 for the first time, with 50% of the new Ninth Graders coming from outside Brooklyn. Bruce and the Board understood that, in light of the significant increase in admissions applications, it was important to ensure that a Packer education would be accessible to a diverse range of families, and through Bruce’s 15-year tenure, Packer’s financial aid dollars have tripled. Similarly, Bruce recognized the importance of schoolwide programming to amplify and advocate for disparate voices and experiences within the community, and in 2011, he made the Director of Diversity and Equity a full-time senior administrative position.
One of Bruce’s other key commitments was to ensure that student quality of life remained strong and balanced amid a demanding academic program. In 2008, he created the Health Education Department, which has grown to four faculty members who teach in every division. Today, Packer is a recognized leader in PreK-12 health education and social-emotional development.
Under Bruce's leadership, community engagement evolved into a regular practice of student advocacy on a range of issues. In 2016, Bruce granted the request of these Lower Schoolers, who asked for his help in recreating an outdoor rock garden that had been replaced with a new greenhouse.
Ensuring Continued Excellence
In 2011, Bruce and the Board presented Ensuring Continued Excellence, a strategic plan for the next five years. It called for a wide range of curricular expansions, including more student-centered, project-based learning, and interdisciplinary learning opportunities. Many features of a Packer education developed as a result: the three-year Independent Science Research program; faculty-authored Advanced Topics Courses, which replaced the College Board’s Advanced Placement program; and interdisciplinary electives such as the Scientific and Historical Origins of Race and Gender.
Expanding experiential learning that takes place “beyond the classroom walls” was another key commitment of the second strategic plan. Starting in 2014, with the implementation of the Upper School’s Symposium and the Middle School’s WinterSession, regular classes were suspended for several days every January so that small groups of students and faculty could intensively pursue less traditional topics and travel more widely around the city.
“Bruce’s vision for global learning has meant getting students out of the classroom and into the field, visiting local community organizations where students can engage with the people who live there,” said Andrew Parson, who runs the Tenth Grade International Symposium. In 2014, the Tenth Grade experienced a week-long cultural immersion in Andalucia, Spain. As of this year, the program brings half the class to Greece and half to Peru, where students interact with locals and focus on immigration, climate change, and other pressing real-world issues. The program is provided to every Tenth Grader at no additional cost [see story on page 5].
More than many other curricular advances of the Dennis years, the International Symposium sets Packer apart. “No other school in the city is doing that,” said Sheila Bogan, Director of Middle and Upper School Admissions. Prospective families have taken note, as have other schools that are eager to follow Packer’s lead.
To help support this program and deepen Packer’s international travel program, as well as schoolwide engagement with Packer’s local community, Bruce created the position of Director of Global Learning and Community Engagement. Since 2015, Tené Howard ’97 has led a major overhaul of the community service program from Preschool through Twelfth Grade, emphasizing students’ capacity to be leaders and change agents. “These were parts of our program that Bruce had a passion for. He knew how much they impacted the young people in our School,” said Tené.
Bruce also recognized the importance of investing in Packer’s present and future by supporting the growth of the School’s philanthropic programs. Annual Giving more than tripled, from $800,000 to nearly $3 million, during Bruce’s tenure. Through an initiative to double the endowment, which was completed in 2015, Bruce and the Board of Trustees “ensured the School’s continued success and financial security,” said Sara Shulman, Director of Development.
Bruce reads to the Class of 2033 at the new Packer Early Learning Center at 100 Clinton Street.
A Bold Campus Vision
One of the most visible legacies of Bruce’s tenure is reflected in the campus itself. In 2014, Bruce and the Board purchased a two-story building at 100 Clinton Street, where they planned to create the Packer Early Learning Center, a state-of-the-art space for Packer’s Preschool and Kindergarten classes, which for decades had been located in the Garden House on the southeast corner of the campus.
“Bruce was a champion for this new space, a champion for allowing us to really create the space according to our vision of how young children learn best,” said Bill McCarthy, Head of Preschool and Lower School. Denise Schwed, Director of Preschool and Lower School Admissions, agreed. He was “so instrumental in making it all happen.”
This historic move represented the culmination of Bruce’s vision because it allowed a complete reimagining of the relationship between the Garden House and the rest of the campus. This April, Bruce and the Board presented early plans not only to expand the Garden House but also to redesign the Garden itself. While the specific details of the spaces will be shaped by Bruce’s successor, Dr. Jennifer Weyburn, and groundbreaking is still a year away, the final landmark achievement of Bruce’s tenure “will have a huge impact on Packer’s future,” in the words of Carla Shen.
As Bruce’s final year as Head of School comes to a close, those who worked most closely with him sought to express his impact.
Former Board Chair Tony Bowe P’09, P’13 shared a letter he wrote to Bruce when he stepped down in 2008: “To see great baseball, you go to Yankee Stadium. To hear great musicians, you go to Carnegie Hall. To watch Bruce at work at Packer was to see a great leader at the top of his chosen game.”
“He strengthened the School in every corner,” said Andrea Kelly. “His fingerprints are all over Packer and will be for a really, really long time.”
“Packer was a great school when Bruce got here 15 years ago. He has only taken it to greater heights,” said Ronan Harty.
Current Board Chair Debbie Juantorena P’19 noted how skillfully Bruce balanced the perspectives of the School’s many constituents. “Through it all, his commitment and passion for Packer, and all of us, has been unwavering. He has always been guided by one fundamental principle—doing what he believes is best for Packer.”
A school administrator for most of his career, Bruce will continue to be involved in education as a consultant to Carney, Sandoe & Associates, an international search firm. When he’s not helping schools recruit new leaders, he plans to take piano lessons and spend more time with his wife, Barbara.