New Harbor School head brings experience, humility to Island’s only private middle school


Stephen Edele will be joining The Harbor School in July after his appointment last week as the new head of The Harbor School, an independent school on Vashon for grades four through eight.

He will replace founding head Toby Welch, who began the school 12 years ago.

“I’m 57 years old. I’m not looking for a career move. I’m looking for a place I can fall in love with and be in a place that’s really right for my family,” Edele, who lives in San Diego with his family, said last week.

“From a founding head’s perspective, I’m very pleased and very excited for what he’s bringing and also for the school itself,” Welch said. It’s a wonderful thing for us. He was our first choice, and he accepted it readily. Out of a field of five semifinalists, he was our top choice.”

Edele has more than 30 years experience in independent school administration and teaching.

His longest stint was for 19 years with The Pennington School in New Jersey, where he started as an English teacher and coach and then moved into administration, taking the roles of director of residential life, middle school head and then upper school head.

He got the teaching job at Pennington after three years as an English teacher in the Philadelphia public schools, working with academically advanced inner-city students.

“I knew very little about independent schools then,” he said. “I went to a Catholic school. My sister-in-law taught at Pennington, and that’s how I found out about the job.”

Since leaving Pennington in 1997, Edele has worked at three independent schools, one in Virginia and two in California.

His most recent head of school position was at Harborside School in San Diego, where he was employed from 2002 to 2007.

The school closed abruptly when funding dried up. The fundraising portfolio at Harborside, however, was not Edele’s, according to Cindy Pollock, who chairs The Harbor School’s board. The board, she added, was satisfied after speaking with all Harborside board members, all of whom highly recommended Edele and had nothing but praise for the educator.

“From my standpoint, he seems like the perfect person to lead our school through its next phase. He understands what Toby has created and will build on it embracing the mission of the school,” Pollock added.

As the founding head, Welch undertook the first phase of the school, creating a strong academic program and making the school a part of the community, he said.

The second phase, he said, would focus more on outreach, admissions, enrollment and fund development.

All those elements are part of a five-year strategic plan the board adopted two years ago, creating a clear mandate for Edele, which includes building an operating reserve beyond tuition dollars that would allow for such elements as professional development and purchase of new texts, Welch said.

In his letter of introduction to the community, Edele praised Welch and the staff for their work to date. “It will be my job to make sure The Harbor School holds fast to all those things that make it the unique place it is, to promote the school in the broader community for its many benefits as an innovative leader and model for what 21st century education should be and to strengthen the school’s foundations so that it can continue to offer children the ideal place to learn and grow well into the future.”

Edele added, in a phone call last week, that he’s not sure what his first actions will be.

“We are talking about that now,” he said. “We are figuring out the priorities in general terms. We will probably build enrollment up a bit. We have a limit of 73, we’re now at 60-63. In a small school that makes a difference.”

The limit is part of the lease agreement for the The Harbor School building from Vashon Island School District.

Edele emphasized that the most important thing for him is that The Harbor School is innovative and progressive.

“It’s based on the whole idea of engaging kids actively in their own learning and also using an interdisciplinary approach. In the other schools I have worked for, I was charged with changing the curriculum from traditional to progressive,” he said.

Members of the Harbor School community have been unanimous in their praise of Edele as the choice to lead the school.

Pam Jewson, who headed the search committee, said last week, “I’m very happy with the results of the committee’s hard work. It was an inclusive, comprehensive, nationwide search. We believe strongly that we have found a great match. He has all the personal and professional qualities we were looking for. The future of Harbor School is very bright.”

Teacher and dean of faculty James Cardo, who was also on the search committee, was impressed with Edele’s combined abilities as a teacher and an administrator.

“He understands the business side of running a small school and, more important, how to put together a curriculum. He can take a good curriculum and move it to the next level,” Cardo said.

And search committee member and former board chair Colby Atwood praised what he called Edele’s balance “between humility and ambition.”

“His personality makes him very approachable by kids as well as adults,” he added.

Edele has been married for 35 years to Nancy Fox, who has been a writing teacher (all ages and all grade levels) throughout her career. She has published a children’s book, a textbook on the process of writing, and a range of poetry, essays, and scholarly articles. She is currently a faculty member in the writing and rhetoric department at San Diego State University and intends to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Washington.

Edele and Fox have two adopted children, 15-year-old Nicholas who will attend Vashon High School, and 10-year-old Chloe, who will attend McMurray Middle School because, said Edele, she is allergic to dogs. The Harbor School has a tradition of including dogs in its community, one that Edele admires and plans to continue.