By Michele J. Kuhn
TINTON FALLS – Though only a few months into his tenure as Ranney School head of school, John Griffith seems at home.
“It’s been wonderful. It’s been great. I couldn’t ask for a better transition. It’s a wonderful place,” he said. “All the stakeholders have been very welcoming. The faculty and staff have been wonderful. The trustees are great. The parents have been incredibly welcoming and the kids have been wonderful.”
Griffith, appointed as headmaster with the retirement of Lawrence Skyoff, has been on campus since July 1. That has allowed him and his family to meet Ranney families and ease their transition. Griffith and his wife Dana are the parents of 5-year-old Claire, whose transition was further eased by her participation in Ranney’s summer camp program.
“It’s been a great match so far,” he said.
Part of Griffith’s introduction to the school was his participation in three student retreats in three days. He went to the Catskills with the freshmen participating in such activities as zip-lining, then headed the next day to whitewater rafting in the Poconos with the seniors and on the third day took a trip to Philadelphia with the eighth-graders. “It was a great entry point,” he said.
He has taken the time to listen and talk to others, have one-to-one meetings with faculty and staff and meet with parents, trustees and past heads.
“It’s been a great way to know the community and to hear people’s stories that sometimes you don’t get to know when you come to a place fresh and new. You get to hear their stories with the school and their hopes and aspirations.”
Griffith also spent the seven months before being installed as Ranney’s fourth head of school reading about the school and becoming familiar with the history of the 53-year-old pre-K through 12th grade independent day school.
Formerly headmaster at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, Tenn., and before that upper school principal at The Miami Valley School in Dayton, Ohio, Griffith actually has “Jersey guy” roots. He was born in Edison and lived in the area for a few years before his family moved to Massachusetts and then New Hampshire. He grew up in Manchester, N.H., and was greatly influenced by his time as a student at Derryfield School.
“I had an incredible experience,” he said. “I knew all the teachers incredibly well. I knew the head of the school incredibly well. He was really, I now realize, a model for me in terms of the first head I had. He was a wonderful, approachable guy.
“I loved all my subjects there but I was probably most passionate about history and English,” Griffith said. “I had the coolest teachers.”
Griffith went to Middlebury College in Vermont where he also saw a “modeling of great teachers.” He earned his M.Phil and D.Phil in modern British literature from Lincoln College at Oxford in England and a master’s in educational administration and leadership from Columbia University.
He said he always has “loved English as discipline” and hopes to be able to teach a course at Ranney next year. “Teaching was a great fit for me.”
His first teaching job out of graduate school was at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tenn.
“When I first landed my teaching job at the high school level, the thing I loved about it was that I was with great colleagues, I was in an incredibly supportive environment, I was with really bright kids discussing literature, grading papers,” he said.
Griffith’s last school, Battle Ground Academy, and Ranney School are similar in size and both are co-educational day schools.
“What differed, I think, was the culture of the school … that’s what really attracted me (to Ranney). I loved the traditions of Battle Ground Academy. It was a very old school … but history can be a strangler, a weakness,” he said. “At times I felt there was a hesitancy to change …What I have found so far at Ranney is that it is much more adaptable, much more innovative, much more progressive, much more willing to look at what are the best educational practices.”
Ranney and Griffith are gearing up for the process of updating the school’s strategic plan next year. This year, the school community will spend time looking at the future direction of Ranney. “I’m a big believer in surveys and feedback. Whether it’s formal or informal, I try to gather a lot of information … about what the opportunities are, what the strengths and weaknesses are,” he said.
“By and large, the school is in great shape and it’s nice to be able to continue that momentum and not have any overarching needs,” he said.
Griffith said that he has noticed that through its 53-year history, graduates of Ranney School have had differing experiences as students but the common ground seems to be that the school’s mission that “every child be known and valued” has been upheld throughout the school’s existence. “Through those generations, the academic focus of the school as been the singular connector,” said Griffith, who would like to strengthen alumni ties to the school.
He also would like to continue the school’s growth in the arts and connect with local arts groups by having students participate in the groups’ activities and having those groups participate at Ranney School.
During the past few years, Ranney has enhanced its sports program, including its inclusion in the Shore Conference in 2012. The school has 29 varsity sports.
Griffith said he would like to continue that growth for the students in sports and the arts.
“It seems to me we can do the same thing with the arts and really connect with The Basie, the Two River Theater … and really enrich that program,” Griffith said. “It’s exciting. There’s really a lot of energy around that program.”
Griffith expects to be at Ranney School for a long time.
“When the opening came up at Ranney, it really intrigued me,” said the 49-year-old.
After eight years at Battle Ground Academy and growing a bit restless, “I felt like the next place where I settled was going to be a place where I wanted to be for a long time, at a school I could really help to grow and develop. I wanted a place that was a good fit.”
Ranney School “seemed to align well with my values, my personality,” he said. “I’m excited to be here.”