A headmaster hangs up the chalk | May 22, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Cover Story - May 22, 2013

A headmaster hangs up the chalk

Norman Colb has been at Menlo School's helm during 20 years of transformation

by Renee Batti

It was mid-afternoon on a glorious day — sunny, mild, the air fragrant with spring. But on the Menlo School campus, Norman Colb wasn't out smelling the roses. Instead, he said from his long-familiar office, "I'm inhaling every memory I possibly can."

With his 20-year history at the Atherton private school, on a campus that he's had a significant role in shaping and expanding, the stroll down memory lane no doubt would be a heady experience.

Mr. Colb, hired as head of school by Menlo in summer 1993, will "hang up the chalk" there in mid-June. The school has seen a major transformation during his tenure, beginning with the bolstering of its high school enrollment and the addition of a sixth grade to its middle school program soon after he arrived.

Also, in 1994, Menlo School and the adjacent Menlo College, which existed as a single entity for decades, separated, and one of Mr. Colb's duties was to develop the infrastructure the sixth- through 12th-grade school would need to stand on its own, according to the school.

Over the last 20 years, Mr. Colb has overseen construction of new middle school buildings; the renovation and expansion of the historic Douglass Hall, former home of inventor Leon Douglass, whose family sold the expanse of property to the school for its campus; construction of new high school classrooms and a lecture/concert hall; and the construction of an Athletic Center and Creative Arts and Design Center.

But as he wraps up his two decades at Menlo, it's not the buildings Mr. Colb points to as his greatest accomplishments. "If I have any legacy at all here ... it's in creating an attractive environment for serious educators," he said in an interview with the Almanac. "My primary goal has been to help build a school that is exceptionally attractive to the very best teachers. ... My theory has been: If you can attract and retain superb teachers, great teachers, everything would flow from that."

Eastward bound

Mr. Colb announced his retirement, effective this June, in December 2011, and at the time, intended that move to mean the end of his work life, he said. He would be 70, he would have ended his career at "a school I truly cherish," and that would be that.

Then reality set in. After devoting nearly 50 years to the cause of education, Mr. Colb began having second thoughts as his retirement approached, he said, and when an opportunity opened to become headmaster at the Sage Ridge School, a 15-year-old independent school in Reno, he grabbed it. So rather than heading into the sunset, Mr. Colb and his wife, Susan, have sold their Menlo Park home and are preparing to head east.

His job at Sage Ridge will involve increasing enrollment and financial strength, he said. But he'll be on familiar ground in several aspects: "The school has an excellent faculty, and a strong mission," he said. "The core of that school is very strong."

Future of education

In a talk Mr. Colb gave in February at a gathering of Menlo School parents and alumni, he spoke of his views about the education world, including his beliefs that teachers are undervalued and grades overemphasized. The latter, he said, is counterproductive, encouraging behavior and strategies that may lead to better grades, but don't promote genuine learning. It also creates unhealthy stress for kids.

Mr. Colb elaborated on that theme earlier this month, stressing that putting too much emphasis on a child's grades can extinguish his or her engagement with the life of the mind. "Enjoying the use of one's mind and learning is what should be emphasized," he said.

One of his missions as head of school was to identify skills and experiences that would prepare students to lead productive lives in the 21st century, he said. To meet that assignment involves teaching kids to work effectively with others, to learn to speak and write effectively, and to "understand one's relationship with the wider world and one's obligation to the wider world," he said.

Another aspect of the task is to help kids become problem-solvers. "I don't mean (solving) easily grasped problems," he said. "I mean problems that take extensive thought" and require drawing from a range of resources to solve.

Also, the future leaders and problem-solvers of the world must develop "habits of initiative," he said. "The problems we are facing as a society require that the kids act on their own initiative, not follow orders. We take great pride in handing out diplomas to kids who have shown they can do that."

A tribute

On May 5, Menlo School students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and trustees packed the school's Athletic Center for a tribute to Mr. Colb and his leadership, which "has helped Menlo become one of the premier independent schools in the country," according to organizers.

The event included a video tribute, a "flash mob" and chorus/dance productions by students. Attendees wore paper eyeglasses with angled eyebrows — a form of friendly mimicry of the distinguished-looking headmaster.

A highlight of the tribute was the unveiling of a collage of Mr. Colb, made up of 2,000 photos of him with students from the past 20 years. The artwork will be placed in the "Norm Colb Corner" of the school library, along with a bench and bookcase in his honor, according to the school.


There are no comments yet for this post