James Ure: New School Leadership & My Memories As Headmaster
Dear Parents and Students,
I feel incredibly grateful that I get to work with Williamsburg students and families. I’m lucky because my professional work taps into my gifts and aligns with what I care about most deeply. Lately I’ve been feeling a deep need for some kind of a shift, and I’m excited to tell you about that now.
For the past six months, I have been feeling called to move out of my role as Headmaster and into a role that has more time carved out for executive level functions. As you may know, about two years ago we formed a parent company, Williamsburg Educational Services (WES), to prepare for growth and ensure that all aspects of the organization would function smoothly, including marketing, technology systems, curriculum, and professional development. Over the past two years, my WES responsibilities have grown, leaving me less time and energy to give to being Headmaster. The time has come for a new Headmaster, and for me to move into a new role as President of WES. I am excited about this change, and thrilled about the opportunity for Ms. Liz Kirk to influence our organization in a broader way as our new Headmaster. Read about Ms. Kirk’s awesome story here.
Serving our students as Headmaster has been a highlight of my life. Although in my next role I’ll still be deeply involved with Williamsburg students, teachers, and the curriculum, knowing that my time in this role is winding down makes me very nostalgic. For my own personal closure, may I share a just a few of the many meaningful experiences I have had while serving as Headmaster at Williamsburg Academy?
BW (Before Williamsburg)
Pete Jensen and I have been close friends since college (above, with Pete’s wife Suzanne). We were both inspired by amazing college professors and conjectured about working together on something education related in the future. But I still had law school in front of me and he was still destined to pursue an MBA, so it was all just a dream.
Founding the School
After law school, I turned down high falutin’ job opportunities in favor of teaching and mentoring students. At the beginning of 2008, Pete and I had the opportunity to take over Williamsburg Academy, which was a small, unaccredited private school with around 15 students. For the first year it was just me and this group of students sitting around a table in a small rented office space, digging into the Great Conversation in the classics. I was Headmaster, social studies teacher, literature teacher, and heck, I even took a crack at teaching science and math.
Here are some of those students coming back to my home to clean up toilet paper and shoe polish with which they had adorned my home and van the night before. They didn’t anticipate cleaning this up themselves. (Suckers! Don’t you know I’m the Headmaster, Josh, Spencer, and Aaron?!)
Six years later, I invited the same students to my home for a big slumber party so we could catch each other up on our lives. Sure love ‘em.
Taking the School Online as an Experiment
In 2010 we closed our physical “campus” and took the school online so we could reach more students. The first year was an experiment to see if we could have deep, meaningful impact on students’ lives in an online classroom. Our first year online we had just a handful of students, including a boy called Greenman, who is now a leadership coach at the middle school.
As an aside, Greenman was a little unruly. Every so often in the middle of class he would post a photoshopped picture of me on the whiteboard. One time he created a photoshopped image of me wearing a baby bonnet and with a baby bottle in my mouth. Before I leave, I need to bring balance back to the universe.
Sucker! Don’t you know I’m the Headmaster, Greenman?! (Thanks for the help, Matt O.!)
A student named Candrian and his sister Dani picked up where Greenman left off on the whole Photoshop thing, but definitely with better style.
Going All In as an Online School
The online experiment worked, and we decided to go all in for five years. I had to talk Pete, who had just finished his MBA, into partnering with me for five more years to see if we could really make a go of the school. To make things work that first year, we had to move both of our families into a small brick home. Four adults, six kids, four bedrooms…good times. This is the only photo I could find of us from that year of our lives, and it kind of looks like we’re praying. If we are, we’re praying that we don’t harm a noisy child, and that maybe one day we can each have our own place (although our families actually really loved living together!).
First step to “go all in”? Hire some awesome mentors like Ben Brown, Dave Rees, Adam Hailstone, Angie Baker, Gary Arnell, Corey Strange, and Jessica Jordan. We had many meetings like this one, in which we discussed how to best execute on our vision of preparing promising students for meaningful lives as principled leaders.
Next step the following year? Bring on the incredibly talented Erin Mwanje and Liz Kirk (whose glamor shots you can find on this Williamsburg Christmas card from 2012) to found a middle school program. These two are brilliant and created something wonderful, unique, and magical for middle school students. I so love working with them. We also began hiring other talented mentors who have each contributed in meaningful ways.
The Christmas card above deserves a second look, so make sure you really appreciate each photo before you move on. So much to love about the quirky, hilarious, uber talented team members that got Williamsburg off to a great start.
Online was great and all, but we love actually hanging out with students. Pete and I figured, hey, we’re in charge, let’s make something rad. Other team members weighed in and Elevation was born.
Elevation constantly reminds me why I chose to dedicate so much of my life to education––it’s all about helping students feel understood, loved, challenged, and inspired.
Oh yeah. And it’s about rock climbing….
…and wrestling moves (Sucker! Don’t you know I’m the Headmaster, Nathan?!)
And this mind-blowing rope swing, which may just be my magnum opus as Headmaster.
And that hair!
Working with Friends
Perhaps the thing about being Headmaster for which I am most thankful, is the friends who have come into my life while serving in this role.
And some who even invite me to their weddings.
I have a deep love and respect for all members of the Williamsburg Team, and look forward to continuing to work with everyone in my next role.
So What’s Next?
As I move into the role of President at Williamsburg Educational Services, I really have two priorities:
- Improve the parent, student, and teacher experience at Williamsburg Academy and all partner schools using our curriculum and methods generally, including refining our processes, policies, programs, and curriculum
- Help spread Williamsburg courses to new students, families, and schools
As an example of the kinds of projects that are demanding more of my time and necessitating this move, over the past year I have been helping a group of Utah families found Leadership Academy of Utah (LAU), an online charter school in the State of Utah that will use the Williamsburg Curriculum and model. Leadership Academy of Nevada (LANV) was founded by a similar group of Nevada parents a couple of years ago.
These photos are of the LAU board and the Williamsburg Educational Services team presenting to the Utah State Charter School Board in January of this year. LAU was one of only two schools unanimously approved by the Utah State Charter School Board and the Utah Board of Education in 2016, thanks to the work of these inspiring Utah parents and to Williamsburg’s success, which is thanks to all our team members and all of our Williamsburg families.
As we grow, Pete and I feel deeply committed to preserving and improving the integrity of all aspects of our program. As a team we’ll never stop working to improve the service we provide, nor will be become distracted from our mission to “Prepare Promising Students for Meaningful Lives as Principled Leaders.” We look forward to guiding our team through the next phase of our development.
The dominant emotions I feel moving out of this role are nostalgia and a deep sense of satisfaction. I feel very secure about making this move largely because of how deeply I have come to know, trust, and appreciate Ms. Liz Kirk. I’m entirely confident she’s going to lead the organization effectively, and will continue to inspire students, families, and mentors to be their best.
Here’s to the experiences we’ve shared, and to an exciting and promising future together.
All my best,