Vision for a gem in our midst: James Tracy leads Rocky Hill School into the future

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Chances are you don’t yet recognize Rocky Hill School by name; don’t feel bad, you’re not alone.

For the private school in the Potowomut section of Warwick, that is a major problem.

In a state with 201 private schools, serving 27,873 students, it can be difficult to get attention -especially when your total student count is 300.

So, what does a small Rhode Island private school founded 81 years ago do when facing such a dilemma?

They bring on Dr. James Tracy as their 10th Head of School.

Besides being a nationally recognized thought leader in the field of education and having been published in many of the leading education journals, Tracy also has an impressive record of increasing the academic and financial health of the private schools in his charge.

Before assuming the top position at Rocky Hill School on July 1, the Stanford University graduate and former CATS Academy Headmaster was instrumental in the transformation of two schools in Massachusetts.

As headmaster of the Cushing Academy, he jump-started fundraising, increased enrollment and expanded their name recognition. Prior to that, during his six-year tenor as the head of Boston University Academy, Dr. Tracy oversaw a rise in overall SAT scores and was an essential component to the school being ranked among the top 10 private schools in the state.

On a warm July afternoon, Dr. James Tracy discussed his vision for Rocky Hill, the possible challenges ahead, and his thoughts on the future of education.

As he settling into a chair in his newly inherited office, Dr. Tracy lightheartedly commented about not having had the chance to fully unpack. Over the fireplace lingered the unmistakable imprint of a large painting; the barren walls and lack of decorations made the small-outdated room feel that much smaller.

Although not completely settled into his office or the beautiful house situated on the 84-acre campus, Dr. Tracy had already started planning his agenda.

Leaning forward in his chair he addressed Rocky Hill’s biggest problem: “In the beginning of my tenor we are going to focus on raising the external recognition of the school. Rocky Hill is one of the best kept secrets in Rhode Island education, my goal is for it to be recognized for the excellence it maintains and for it to be in the same breath as the best schools in the state.”

Much like the man himself, his voice was calm, yet his words were filled with intention. His unassuming mannerisms projected subtle authority. Positivity emanated in each sentence he spoke.

Vice President of the Board of Trustees Andre Frost described Tracy as being “so positive that his energy infuses everyone around him.”

Frost headed the nationwide search for Rocky Hill’s 10th Head of School. “We had a couple really great candidates; Jim Tracy was the obvious best of those,” said Frost. “He’s one of the top names in education. If you say his name in the field most people will know who he is.”

The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to hire Tracy.

“Jim [Tracy] and our outgoing headmaster, Peter Branch, were able to develop a really close relationship, so the transition was smoother than normal,” explained Frost. “He is going to move pretty quickly. He is very eager to get out and talk about the school and fundraise.”

Tracy, humbly downplaying his talents, quotes another influential academic, Sir Isaac Newton: “If I take the school farther it’s because I’m ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.’”

A vital part of Tracy’s vision for the future of Rocky Hill School involves working with the staff to reach out into the community. “This is not an individual endeavor, it’s a collective endeavor, it’s collaborative,” said Tracy. “Every school calls itself a school community, but this school really is.”

Tracy’s passion for achieving consensus is far from overstated. As head of a prior school he developed a new strategic vision. Instead of making an executive decision and mandating it, he announced that it would not be implemented unless agreed upon by 100 percent of the school community, including faculty, administrators, trustees and parents.

During a time often defined by a polarized society, Tracy successfully moved forward with the new strategy after receiving unanimous support.

Using a leadership style that elicits support, sparks discussion and engages those in the community remains important to Tracy. “We don’t have to look very far in society to see the cost of divisiveness,” he explained.

The tone and cadence of Tracy’s speech resembled that of a college professor during a mid-semester lecture.

“Although it’s an astonishingly wonderful school, the public recognition of it is very low, but I’ve done this before, I’ve worked with schools where we dramatically raised the recognition and prestige of the school,” said Tracy. “The good news, this is already a gem and it’s just about getting the word out.”

One way in which the school interacts with the community is through Business After Hours. The School Alumni Association and the Parent Teacher League sponsor the networking event, which was last held Wednesday. It provides an opportunity for the public to speak with alumni, teachers, staff and others in the business community.

Tracy views events such as this, and even the presence of the school, as adding value to the community. “I want to do more to bring the community in and not have us feel separate from them,” said Tracy. “I believe Rocky Hill is a civic resource and we are motivated and anxious to be a good neighbor.”

While striving to become more visible by reaching outward into the community, Rocky Hill School relies on their cutting edge educational model to set them apart from the large selection of Rhode Island private schools.

The future of education will be more individualized. “There is a movement toward [learning] how children develop and then tailoring the educational delivery to their cognitive growth,” explained Tracy. “Maybe we’ve been doing it wrong for centuries in some respects.”

Unlike schools that subscribe to a more traditional educational approach, “Rocky Hill is a very special school with a very distinct way of teaching,” said Frost. “We have always been more experiential [and now] people are beginning to buy into experiential learning. Even Brown University wants to do it.”

Small class sizes, a 5:1 student/teacher ratio, and a hands-on learning philosophy are just some of the ways Rocky Hill School has been ahead of the educational curve.

“The point of being intentionally small is to provide tremendous opportunity to each student,” said Frost. “While we will grow somewhat, our intention was never to be a school as big as Moses Brown or Wheeler. That would involve a change in our mission.”

Their mission seems to be what drives Rocky Hill School.

“I see the school growing into something really special with what Tracy is looking to do,” said Frost. “I believe once people start to hear about the school there will defiantly be more interest.”

Tracy has a solid history of helping struggling private schools achieve greatness, but it’s the dedicated people around him that make the true difference. “The caliber of people at Rocky Hill School is what drew me [here] in the first place,” he said. “They make me more comfortable that we are going to accomplish everything we want to do.”

With visionary leadership, increased community involvement, and an eye to the future of education, this small private school, nestled against the Greene River and Narragansett Bay, looks toward a bright future.

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