By EMILY RAMSEY
FUTURE BEGINS: Holland Hall’s Head of School J.P. Culley sits in his office on his first day on the job, July 1. Culley comes to Holland Hall after working 15 years as a teacher and administrator with a private school in Tennessee.
EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers
“A gritty, friendly lot”—that’s the opinion Holland Hall’s new Head of School, J.P. Culley, has formed of Tulsans since moving to the city four months ago. Culley officially entered his role at Holland Hall July 1.
After graduating from Sewanee: The University of the South, Culley began working at St. George’s Independent School, a K-12 Episcopal private school in Tennessee, and did not leave for 15 years. During that time, he held various teaching and administrative roles.
It would take the right job opportunity and the right school to lure him away. Culley found it at Holland Hall.
Besides the obvious similarities between Holland Hall and St. George’s, including religious affiliation, size and academic achievements, both schools share certain intangible aspects that resonate with Culley.
“When I interviewed at St. George’s, I had no interest in teaching elementary students,” he says, “until I visited the school.” He visited St. George’s on the last day of the school year and was struck by the way that teachers spoke about their students.
“If there’s ever a day when a teacher may check out of their job, it’s the last day of school,” Culley says. But that was not the case at St. George’s. “That kind of environment was where I wanted to grow as a teacher.”
Fast forward 15 years, and Culley is visiting Holland Hall for a job interview. “It just felt right,” says Culley, who describes himself as one who relies more often on gut feeling than on statistics when making life-changing decisions. “When I came on campus, there was an earthiness and a friendliness that I felt,” he says.
Adding to his initial impressions, Culley was further struck by the school’s fostering of a creative, community atmosphere. While waiting for his interview, Culley sat in the Upper School’s commons area and observed students, from freshmen to seniors, sitting together and socializing before morning announcements began. “In these types of (settings), real things happen,” Culley says. “Discussions invoke creativity and determination, which lead to an entrepreneurial spirit and sense of community.”
No doubt, part of Culley’s firm belief in community comes from what he witnessed at his previous school.
He remembers a program at St. George’s that provided an opportunity for students from its two primary schools to spend time together. “The students formed friendships and developed a sense of togetherness,” says Culley. “By the time they all moved to the same school in 6th grade, students were saying, ‘Now I get to be with my friends from the other school.’”
Similarly, Holland Hall recently partnered with Tulsa Public Schools’ McKinley Elementary to bring kindergarten students together to work on projects, with the goal of encouraging friendships outside of their schools.
Holland Hall students have also participated in food drives, mission trips and service learning projects. Culley’s plan is to both continue and expand that effort.
“There’s a misperception that as private institutions, we’re going to go in the corner and do our own thing with the students,” he says. “In the future, we want kids out there, more in the community, to broaden their educational experience.”
After announcements, back at the Commons, students are invited to share their creativity with their fellow students through individual or group performances. While that is considered torture by most teenagers, Holland Hall students mostly jump at the opportunity. Among many factors, Culley credits the school’s teachers and their supportive relationships with students as reason for student confidence.
Besides community and creativity, Culley also wants to foster student acceptance in view of the country’s growing diversity, he says. Asians and Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic groups in Oklahoma, according to 2012 Census Bureau reports. Each year, Holland Hall receives a large amount of applications from minority students, and the school maintains a large financial aid budget to accommodate those in need of financial help.
Culley, whose own high school was filled with students of various nationalities, understands the importance of exposing students to different perspectives and backgrounds. “We have to understand that the best long-term interest in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the U.S. is to educate the population to engage with those of all backgrounds,” he says.
Considering Culley’s eagerness to welcome Tulsa’s future, including its current downtown rebirth, and evolving demographics, it is no wonder he was chosen to carry the 91-year-old Episcopalian school into a new era. His wide smile and undeniable enthusiasm are hard to deny.