Andy Abbott became head of school at John Burroughs in 2009. Previously, he served the school as assistant head of school; director of college counseling, principal of grades 11 and 12 and began as a classroom teacher in 1990. He guides the school in an era where innovation is shared with a commitment to traditional learning.
This is the first in a two-part session with the John Burroughs Head of School.
Ladue-Frontenac Patch: Seems like Burroughs is really moving forward these days. You have a brand new performance/athletic center about to break ground on the campus.
Andy Abbott: We are, this spring, breaking ground on our long-term master plan that is going to include a performing arts center and will have a black box theatre, music rooms, orchestra, choral and band rooms and a new auditorium where we will have morning assemblies each day. This facility will have excellent acoustics in the theatre, and will have a new dance studio. It's going to bring our performing arts facilities up to the level of our visual arts facilities, which I think are outstanding.
We will also have a new athletics center, which will replace our gymnasium that was built in 1947, Memorial Gym. And it's a great place, but it will be a new indoor venue for athletics, and now visiting teams will have a locker room for the first time, which we’ve never had and a new fitness center and offices and meeting rooms for coaches.
The goal was to bring our indoor sports facilities up to the level of our oudoor facilities, which are excellent. We are also going to renovate the student commons with new conference rooms, and new spaces for our students to meet between classes and a new office for our director of diversity and students' activities. That will become space sort of like a student union.
Patch: Some of your new hires come with some notoriety. Gus Frerotte is your new football coach with NFL experience. Seems to be working very well for you.
Abbott: I think the faculty at Burroughs is the greatest aspect at this school. And we are very lucky that it is a very stable faculty, and the average teacher has been teaching over 20 years and been at Burroughs on average 13 years, so we have very little turnover in our faculty. We are able to put an awful lot of thought and care into every one of our new hires. Our turnover is minimal and are hiring just two to three new teachers each year.
That’s a very small number, and the faculty is incredibly talented—a very bright group of people, experts in their field but interesting people with interesting hobbies and connected with kids... Gus (Frerotte) is recognizable because of his name. But he was first here as a parent then as an assistant football coach and slid in and just projects the Burroughs’ faculty. He’s an expert in his field and a very positive person and connects with kids, and that’s why he does so well.
Nanette Tarbouni is our new director of college counseling who used to be the director of admissions at Washington University. People paid a lot of attention because she was a name people knew. And she’s done well because she’s kind and connects with people and she’s a really thoughtful person. And that’s the case with our faculty that have been here for 30 years. The new hires fit in nicely with those people who have been here a very, very long time.
Patch: Do John Burroughs graduates come back to work and to teach here?
Abbott: I don’t know that number off the top of my head, but we probably have 10 or 15 alums who teach or coach and are very involved. Most recently, Meredith Thorpe, who is our field hockey coach, is assistant director of admissions and she’s wonderful and just goes hand in hand with all of our staff.
Patch: You have very successful, high-profile alums Jon Hamm, Ellie Kemper, Joe Edwards and others. Is that inspirational to your younger kids?
Abbott: I think it is. What we like to talk about is the breadth of our alums. There is not a Burroughs type. We have people who are great in business, and we have people who are doctors, people who are great parents and go into community service. People who become the unnamed mayor of University City (Joe Edwards), and people who become great actors and the arts, and they make big names. That is just indicative of the breadth in our alums and that’s the real point of pride in our school.
Patch: Just how strong is your alumni association? What kind of role do they play in assisting your school?
Abbott: When I talk to families, I tell families you don’t come for six years, you come for 60 years or 70 years or 80 years, and that’s the truth. Our alumni are very devoted. They stay in touch with one another.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, probably half the kids who graduated last year were on campus to see their old teachers and friends. I felt like the whole-world Burroughs community was at the football game (Show-Me Bowl) Saturday after Thanksgiving.
But we have a lot of groups forming to support one another. There is a fine arts committee, made up of those involved in the arts, and they think about helping artists to come here, and they appraise our works and work with our (Bonsack) gallery. We have a young entrepreneurs group who get ideas from one another. We have a young parents group and get together and alumni groups are here constantly and feel connected to the school.
They come to Potpourri, (the annual fundraiser) and they volunteer for Potpourri, and they support Potpourri. And they come for games and plays and musicals, and they are very involved. And we have a saying: alumni connected for life, and they truly are.
We travel nationally, and we’ll go to San Francisco or Chicago or New York and 80-100 will show up at our events year in and year out.
It is striking to me the devotion people have with Burroughs, and it stays with them and their friends long after they are gone. They remember their teachers and its touching.
Tuesday: The series concludes with Part 2 of an in-depth discussion with Andy Abbott, Head of School at John Burroughs.