Changing of the guard at Barrington Christian Academy
By Fred Comella
With presidential elections looming this fall, there’s an increasing focus on our nations dire ction. For those who’ve read some of my writing, you’d know I’m often frustrated and even a bit pessimistic at times, that any of our political representatives will ever fix the myriad of problems we face. At the end of the day I continue to arrive at education as our one true “earthly” hope, and more specifically the promotion and reinforcement of the fundamental tenets of a country with an obvious and long-standing connection to Christ.
Now my “Journey with Jesus” has certainly reinforced my recognition of that connection, but that’s not what I write about today. And while I continue to use my political writing as a means to vent some of the aforementioned frustration, these days I find myself writing more and more of the charge we give to our educators to get it right, to teach our children not indoctrinate them, and to ensure the survival of what I like to call, “the greatest arrangement for mankind under God”.
Inevitably, there can be no greater responsibility than to provide the next generation, (Ironically a generation which will not have the benefit of learning it from those who actually lived through many of the defining moments of the early 20th century), with a foundation of truth. And not a manufactured utopian truth, created only to reconcile and/or validate mediocrity and the lie of low or no accountability, but rather one which speaks to the time honored Christian values which are the soul and structure of this free republic. These are our children my friends. They are God’s children for that matter! And I say they deserve that truth.
I have enjoyed all of the opportunities God has provided me to speak to those bringing His message, be that through overseas ministry, song, and/or outreach. But I feel my spirit rise when I have an opportunity to speak with teachers. It’s almost as if my heart and mind are joined in the knowledge that theirs is the most important job on planet earth, and I get to be a part of that, even if only for 2000 words or under…
A couple of years back I sat down with Elsie Wright, Head of School for the “Barrington Christian Academy” (BCA) in Barrington Rhode Island. BCA is a school steeped in the very educational value systems I’m writing about. In eloquent detail, Elsie explained the mission of BCA and all that it meant to her and her family. She spoke of BCA’s vision that students and graduates serve in every arena of society with passion, skill, integrity and faith. She explained that leading by example and service was at the heart of that vision, and that BCA was in the business of providing the faith-based education necessary to do so.
Elsie explained the schools statement of faith in that “God calls us into His body to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be His servants in the service of men, to resist the powers of evil, and to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world”. I remember our conversation was broad, and covered everything from Elsie’s efforts at the state level regarding school choice, to granting and fundraising, to BCA’s student outreach efforts at home and around the world. It was a cold snowy night during the schools (35th Anniversary Year), when she told me how she first accepted her charge at BCA and as a wife and mother to a growing family, she took the position of “Head of School” only on the grounds it be for no more than a year.
Well that was 1989, and I just finished speaking with her again at BCA to talk about her impending retirement. The trademark sharp grin and look of immense pride was all the evidence I needed to know that Elsie Wright was good with God and all of her efforts at BCA. She shared with me her thoughts on what a rewarding experience it had been, and that her pride stemmed from the recognition that it was truly a team effort. That said Elsie beamed as she spoke of impending vacations and time with family in Washington and Texas, to include grandchildren fast on the way, but not before she was sure in the knowledge BCA would be in good hands. Enter one Sean Hunley…
(The heart of an educator is truly something to be admired. And if as a Christian I might add, the Holy Spirit is in the soul of the Christian educator, equipping them with an unequivocal confidence and commitment which instills faith-based attributes into the academic, social, and community contributions of all who they touch. Do not misunderstand, I believe there are great educators to be found in many disciplines, but those who walk with Christ enjoy the freedom of salvation as a foundational and inspirational motivation.)
Sean Hunley had a heart and soul for teaching since childhood. Realizing that dream in 2001 and with a Christian heart for Christ, Sean accepted his first teaching post at the International Christian School in Hong Kong in 2001. Sean dabbled in business along the way while he was in school, but a burning desire to be an educator would not be extinguished. He received a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Bible Studies from Gordon College in 1997 and his Ed.M. in Education from Harvard University in 2001. College Girlfriend Jo would visit Sean in Hong Kong, a place they grew to love, and where Sean began to understand more clearly, his passion and where it might take him. But Sean also realized something else in Hong Kong, and that was he wanted to marry his college sweetheart. So when they returned home to the States, his did just that.
After the adventures and learning experiences of overseas living, Sean longed for home and would eventually accept another teaching post at a small private boarding school called Eagle Hill in Hardwick, Massachusetts. He and Jo would eventually make their home and family nearby in rural central Massachusetts.
When I sat down with Elsie last week, I was also privileged to meet Sean as he’d been selected by Elsie and The BCA Board to replace her as “Head of School”. I was immediately struck by Sean’s intellectual presence in the small office we met in, and I knew right away that Elsie had chosen wisely in her quest to ensure the success of BCA in the coming years. Now 17 years married to Jo, the 41 year-old father of three young children Ella, Liam, and Finn, and all who attend BCA, told me the road to his current position was clearly the one God had chosen for him. Sean expressed great appreciation for the opportunities and blessings afforded him along the way, and especially at Eagle Hill where he implemented many of his educational ideals and ideas. While there, Sean founded and directed a performing arts center and the schools first integrated full season of public programming, an art gallery open to general public , student internships, and artist residencies, “all of which helped to connect the lives of students and adult professionals in new and meaningful ways.”
I asked Sean what ultimately led him to BCA. He told me there was one constant, that being his longing to return to the fellowship, camaraderie and “the joy” he experienced with like-minded Christian teachers from his early teaching days. He explained that while he’d made many friends along the way, there had always been a special and spiritual bond with his Christian co-workers. Sean also told me that from a career view, and while he sought the growth and development of a school on the move, he believed BCA was the only Christian school with the rock solid foundation of achievement he also felt necessary in education. Elsie interjected that she could see in Sean his ambition for growth, but also his need to feel part of the “bigger picture” of established practice and a proven record of success. I quizzed Elsie about what else she saw in Sean, and she explained that his ability to move fluidly from a discussion of education to one of administration impressed her immensely in their early discussions.
Elsie went on and told me that Sean had applied to BCA to fill a vacancy being created by a much loved and adored senior teacher who was retiring, and that filling such a hole is far more difficult than one might imagine, and it was for that reason that her vetting of Sean was all the more critical. It would be that vetting process just four years ago, that would open her eyes to Sean’s immense potential as a leader in one of the most respected Christian schools in the country.
Sean was eventually offered and accepted the English teaching position, and went immediately about the business of both applying his myriad of literary and transitional skill sets to the High School student body at BCA, as well as quietly and most agreeably, interjecting on an administrative level where he saw a need. This only reinforced Elsie’s leadership assessment of Sean, and caused her to begin to envision him in that type of role in the future.
Sean’s decision was certainly not his own. God had brought him to BCA’s door, but Jo would walk him in. There were initially concerns of pay cuts, and the sacrifice of a family whose patriarch was destined for greater things. This did not fall lightly on Sean and he prayed mightily with his wife in close consultation. Ultimately, and with Jo telling him that he’d obviously been called to do this and nothing else, the “leap of faith” was taken and they were on their way to BCA.
Sean’s second and third years at BCA were a whirlwind, and included augmenting Sean’s responsibilities (and pay), albeit gently and with consideration of his deep desire to teach above all things. Eventually, Elsie and Sean would collaborate on what Sean had framed as the possible addition of a “Dean of Education” position, something that would expose Sean to some of the more challenging aspects of the administrative side of BCA. Accordingly, Sean had consistently demonstrated an almost natural ability to see both the “forest and the trees”, and all while continuing to be an innovative and inspirational teacher throughout his career.
Elsie told me that as Sean moved to year four at BCA, she’d finally made the decision that it was time to move to the next phase of her life, and that Sean should replace her. There was much discussion with The Board, and all channels were vetted by way of needs analysis, committees, and the like. Elsie also told me of her many interactions with peer schools over the years, and having had an opportunity to speak with so many learned folks in her field. She feels strongly that those experiences greatly enhanced her ability to see the necessary attributes in any candidate for a position of leadership in a Christian school. In the end, Elsie explained that even those involved in the process at the BCA level could see clearly, that the promotion of Sean Hunley would do nothing but enhance Barrington Christian Academy and their Christian educational efforts.
So for the past year, Elsie has immersed Sean in the day to day operations or “DNA of the school” as she put it, a labyrinth of highways and avenues she’s spent nearly 30 years paving, creating a living and working structure which she will now pass to him so he may navigate them to the next level. From simple email inclusiveness to the most difficult of disciplinary applications, Sean now finds himself in practice mode in the world of administration. And all while preparing to balance those new responsibilities on July 1st, with his unwavering primary responsibility as a good Christian husband and father.
As I’ve written so many times, 2000 words never seem enough to tell these stories. So basically I let “Him” do the real work. From my humble perspective, I see great potential in this well-educated educator who stands poised to, not replace, but rather take the baton from another well-educated educator. So I asked Sean if there were anything else he’d like the readers and parents of potential BCA students to know. He paused and said: “God gifted me with purpose. Moreover, educating our young people to understand that God has a purpose for them as well, and something far beyond simply a good education, a good job, and any perceived success/reward, is paramount to the success of the student, and ultimately the school as a whole”. Sean went on to say that BCA’s mission statement, “to nurture, equip, and encourage students in the development of their God-given potential” is significant, and that anything less would truly be a “poverty of purpose”. Well said Sir. Good luck, and God bless you and your family as you begin this new journey in His name. I’m sure we’ll speak again in the not so distant future.
And to Elsie, from all of us to you, thank you so much for “staying more than one year”… Sean’s got this… Enjoy your grandchildren! Best wishes and God bless you in retirement….
To learn more about Barrington Christian Academy please visit www.bcacademy.org or call 401.246.0113