Free Union Country School Welcomes New Head

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Tim Baynum, Head of School at Free Union Country School.

Free Union Country School (FUCS) has hired Dr. Tim Baynum to lead the independent community school into its 40th year and beyond. A teacher and educational administrator with 28 years of experience at middle, high, and K-12 schools, both public and private, Baynum happened across FUCS while driving through Free Union during the same week the head position was advertised.

“I had served in Montgomery county as principal of a high school and middle school, and as director at Wakefield [K-12] School in northern Virginia and then principal of a high school down in Blacksburg,” said Baynum. “But that day we were driving past, I was struck by the setting—it was just one of those things that hits you—and when I came to visit, I realized that this is what I’d been looking for the whole time.”

Serving as the fourth head in the last five years, Baynum understands that stability in leadership will be key to helping the school achieve its goals, and that the job plays to his strengths. “It’s important to challenge yourself all the time,” he said, “and I felt that I was becoming a little systematic in my thinking. Coming here, this is a chance for me to continue to grow as an educator, and to contribute my talents and my background in running schools to help keep this place emotionally and fiscally healthy.”

Baynum’s doctoral work at UVA focused on student belonging in academic settings, and for him that experience is the ultimate goal. “Belonging is the keystone for student learning,” he said. “It’s so important that students feel that they’re part of a community that cares about them, a community that’s fair, a community that respects them as individuals, and that they have a voice. I think the same thing goes for teachers, too, and if you can be in an institution where you are fostering belonging and community, that will be a wellspring for some really remarkable things.”

Established in 1984 by a group of parents with an alternative vision of schooling, FUCS serves pre-K to 5th grade as well as preschoolers. The school’s grounds are a peaceful, tree-canopied six acres that host a nature trail and creek, multiple gardens, a wildlife meadow, and a soccer field. A cluster of low buildings provides spaces for academic, art, workshop, and drama classes, plus a library and yoga/mindfulness area, and there are four outdoor classrooms including one dedicated to science that overlooks the back fields.

The FUCS model is based on differentiation, outdoor exploration, and a caring community that emphasizes kindness, curiosity, and respect. “We have a very talented staff and a they have lots of credentials—we have several Ph.D.s, we have master’s degrees—and I think one of the reasons teachers come here is because they have a sense that they are making a difference with the kids,” said Baynum. “They are so committed, it’s very palpable, and that was clear within weeks of me arriving. They are very thoughtful and they think deeply about what they’re doing every day.”

One aspect of the school’s structure that surprised and impressed Baynum is the autonomy that teachers receive at FUCS. “It’s remarkable the amount of instructional funds that are given to each teacher to spend as they want, whatever they want to do,” he said. “That’s been a long-standing policy here, and I would say it’s probably eight times as much as I’ve seen being [distributed] in public schools. It really gives them the lateral movement to be able to interact with, and react to, the students’ learning, to chase it and promote it.”

FUCS is a member of the Progressive Education Network, which says it “supports children as both learners and citizens, and promotes diversity, equity, and justice in our schools and society.” Baynum said the word “progressive” means more than a political ideology in this setting. “We have a wide range of political opinion here, and I think we are inclusive—not just inclusive of people’s skin color or socio-economic class, but also of their thinking,” he said. “We accept the value of having diverse ways of mixing ideas, and that’s a progressive concept too.

“The idea [at FUCS] is that there are tenets of teaching the whole child and having educational experiences that are authentic and genuine, that are really geared for promoting thinking—divergent, unbounded thinking,” he continued. “Research shows that, when it comes to your body and your brain, it’s a lot about your habits and about your systems. And if young people start off with this kind of free thinking, if learning isn’t just isolated to the classroom and a worksheet, and if it can blend across the boundaries and other aspects of your life, then you are way ahead of the game.”

Welcome, Dr. Baynum! 

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