Lessons in Building Community: My Journey Living at a Boarding School Campus

Garrison Forest School

If you would have told me in 1992 that I would be spending three decades-plus living at a girls’ day and boarding school in Owings Mills, Maryland, I would not have believed you. After getting married that summer, I moved in with my wife, a teacher at Garrison Forest School, into her faculty apartment in a dormitory.  

My friends commented that it was an  unusual move. I agreed, figuring that Debbie and I would be on campus for a few years at the most.

Fast forward three decades: We’ve raised two wonderful daughters on campus and have loved being part of the school’s vibrant on-campus faculty and staff community. Our unorthodox living situation has taught us a lot about what it means to be part of a community. 

For 13 years, we were dorm parents. Both our daughters came home from the hospital to our dorm apartment. They grew up alongside dozens of older “sisters” – young women from across the U.S. and globe. Our girls were  exposed to many languages and customs that truly enriched their lives and inspired their own education.

We’ve since lived in a single-family faculty townhome and in our current apartment (as empty-nesters) in a multi-family faculty residence. While the bulk of the work of being on-campus faculty falls to Debbie, who is chair of the Science department, I’ve certainly had the pleasure and opportunity to be a part of the larger campus community. We’ve eaten countless communal meals with students and faculty, hosted events at our home for students, driven students to events, and served as surrogate parents in the dorms for emergencies, chats and celebrations.

Each of these experiences has been rewarding as a spouse and parent and as a colleague to the other adults who live and work at Garrison Forest. And it’s transformed my career. I’ve come to learn first-hand that independent day and boarding schools are complex ecosystems that require a strategic approach to nurture success. 

Faculty residence at Garrison Forest School
Jonathan Oleisky’s current faculty residence (third floor) at Garrison Forest School.

After living on-campus for nearly 20 years, I had an opportunity to create Kalix Marketing Group, a marketing consulting firm serving the independent school community nationwide and guided by shared values. I have a few take-aways for school leaders from my home for the past three decades: 

1.     I live the reality that, at an independent school, every person shares in the mission and message. School leaders need to cultivate that sense of community across the organizational structure, including with faculty/staff spouses. Often prospective visitors interact with campus security and/or grounds crew on their way to an admissions appointment. Many times, I chatted with visitors while on my way to my car. Do you share the school’s Fact Sheet/elevator pitch with every adult who lives and works at your school? Do you thank them and publicly recognize them for the part they play in making your school the vibrant place it is? 

2.      Get feedback from faculty families over the summer on how the campus looks, etc. On-campus faculty and staff are your school’s eyes and ears and have valuable information – mine their experiences. I spent countless hours with my young daughters across the campus and saw fence posts that needed to be repaired. I listened to students at dinner talk about what could be improved with food service. The people who live on your campus 24/7 often are your best source for ideas on how to improve the campus and programs. 

3.      Consider a “Meet Our On-Campus Families” on your website or profiles on a bulletin board in your admissions office. Share photos of your on-campus families, including the  single people and married couples who live on campus. Give bulleted lists about who they are, how they interact with boarding students, etc. and a pull-quote about why they love to live and work at your school. This creates a very student-centered, family-focused look at the school for prospective day AND boarding students. You can update it annually, re-use the content for a magazine article and email the PDFs to prospective boarding families.

Now, it’s impossible to imagine any other living situation for my family. We look at our daughters – and the successes they’ve had in life – and know that Garrison Forest was a huge part of their foundation, both as students and as on-campus faculty kids. This past November, it was great to return to TABS (The Association of Boarding Schools) conference and talk with so many people who share my passion for boarding school communities. It’s a community that can change the lives of students and everyone who is part of it.

President’s Notes
Jonathan Oleisky

Jonathan Oleisky

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