After 13 years at the helm, Field School founder Todd Barnett will step down as Head of School and make way for a new leader, Dr. Charles Skipper, to take the wheel this fall. From its earliest days when the first 22 students were taught in a community building in Crozet Park, the school has aimed to develop “well-rounded boys of character and accomplishment,” and Barnett says his original goals haven’t changed for the fifth through eighth grade student body. “We focus on the whole boy, and we do lots of things to give them a balanced education.”
After teaching history and leading the history department for several years at Landon, a boys’ school in Maryland, and running the popular Blue Ridge Field Camp in Crozet, Barnett was inspired by Charlottesville’s all-girls Village School to create a small, focused academy. “I really enjoyed running the camp on my own, and the things that were appealing to me about the camp and the school were the same,” he said. “The small scale turned out to be key to our success—it’s better for the kids and much easier to manage.”
Another key is Field School’s faculty, who serve as athletic coaches, club leaders, and advisors in the school’s tight-knit community. “Charlottesville is a really great place to start a school and find excellent teachers,” said Barnett, “and we have almost exclusively been able to find ones who already lived here.” Not only are Field’s teachers willing and able to wear many hats, they also support the school’s philosophy, articulated in its motto, “Every boy known, every boy a brother.”
“A big part of this place is that we emphasize being a good person, and there are opportunities to teach the boys about that every day,” said Barnett. “We [students and faculty] meet a lot, we eat lunch together, and those are good times for the community aspect to take hold. It’s easier to teach values inside a community that knows one another really well.” Beyond their emphasis on core academic subjects (including Latin) and required team sports participation, Barnett and the faculty stress the importance of being civic-minded, of having a wide, global viewpoint, and of telling the truth.
Field School’s boy-oriented approach to education involves lots of hands-on learning and getting outside as often as possible. “I think middle school is a great time to learn things about yourself and what you can do,” said Barnett, “so I say let’s expose them to everything, teach teach teach, and if there’s an opportunity to do something offbeat, let’s do it. The boys are very much themselves, very happy and confident here, and I think the faculty feels the same way—we want the very best out of these human beings.”
Stepping into Barnett’s place will be an experienced educator who shares his affinity for education steeped in community values. Charles Skipper is a veteran history and philosophy teacher who began his career at Norfolk Academy, spent many years at Episcopal High School in Alexandria (including while it was an all-boys school), and oversaw a retooling at Miller School of Albemarle in the mid-1990s. He’s also headed large international schools in El Salvador, Switzerland, and Turkey, and while he’s loved each job, the idea of coming back to Virginia to build on Barnett’s foundation holds great appeal.
“There’s a classic feel in the culture of a place like Field School, which has grown out of summer programs, that is a powerful addition to Todd’s vision of the school,” said Skipper. “It augments the real sense of community here, the language of brotherhood. You can take risks with your brothers that you might not take anywhere else, and that’s a rare thing these days.” He believes that developmental differences between boys and girls can be well served by single-sex education during the middle school years.
“I love building metaphors,” he said, “and I think of middle school as laying down the rebar, getting a framework laid. These are years when the critical pouring takes place, and you’re able to have conversations and figure out where their skills and passions are, to engage them without the complexities of some of the social interaction stuff.” Again, Skipper credits Barnett’s foresight. “One thing I like and respect about Todd is not only what it took to get the school where it is, but also the scope of his vision. It’s got a lot of room in there.”
Having spent most of his career in private school settings, Skipper has an appreciation for their potential to drive educational innovation. “Independent schools can be the crucible in which improvements can be made because of their smaller scale, and that is one greater good or purpose that we’re about,” he said. “I’m a data-driven decision maker, and one cool thing about private education is you can look at data and react immediately.”
One particular skill set that will come in handy is Skipper’s experience with raising funds, as the school has acquired a 25-acre property on Barracks Road just west of Charlottesville and hopes to build a new home for Field School there in the coming years. “I’ve raised a fair amount of money in lots of different settings, including in markets where it just really wasn’t done, particularly internationally,” he said. “I try to look at lots of alternative revenue streams. Education is a costly endeavor, but I’m confident we’ll figure that out.”
In the meantime, Skipper and his wife Ann, who is currently the student data manager for the Williamsburg public school system, are house-hunting. One of their sons works in the Jefferson Scholars program at U.Va., while another is at William & Mary, so they are thrilled to be close to family again. “For me, at this stage, this is the place I really want to be, in a community that I love,” said Skipper.
Current Assistant Head of School Leo Connally thinks that Skipper is the right person to extend what Barnett began at Field School. “It’s no easy feat to build a school from nothing, let alone a program that teaches middle school boys to develop a passion for learning,” said Connally. “When I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Skipper, I was eager to ask him about his leadership style. ‘Leo,’ he responded, ‘I build up leaders around me.’ It’s this type of leadership, that recognizes the contributions of the school’s constituents—from the students and parents to the faculty and staff—that Field School needs as it moves forward.”
For his part, Barnett plans to continue working with kids and the outdoors in ways that he loves. “I think I’ll end up running the camp in the summer, and also doing outdoors-oriented field trips that promote that kind of education,” he said.“I’d like to make myself available to other area elementary and middle schools for field trips and camping trips, so they can go out more often.”
He’s happy to have watched his concept become a reality and thrive, and to be leaving the school in good hands. “Having started this place,” he said, “now I’m eager to start something new.”