Shawn Kelly was one week into his role as interim head of Mountain Academy when the fallout from his predecessor hit newsstands.
The 51-year-old remembers a Teton Village neighbor bringing up the front page story before he had a chance to read it, and the concern he heard from community members before the scope of the situation was entirely clear.
Kelly took over the K-12 branch of Teton Science Schools in May, following a wave of staff resignations amid allegations of gender bias and a board-sponsored investigation that exposed systemic communication issues within the institution. Since then the former head of St. Peter’s School in Philadelphia and The McClelland School in Pueblo, Colorado, has worked to repair relationships and learn the lay of the land at the independent Jackson school.
On Monday, Kelly was officially named chief executive officer of Teton Science Schools and promoted to full-time head of Mountain Academy, which has campuses in Jackson and Teton Valley, Idaho. His family is moving from Colorado Springs, and his 8-year-old daughter, Eva, is already enrolled.
Kelly told the News&Guide on Tuesday that he’s hoping to repair damage caused by the pandemic and organizational turmoil by fostering open communication channels and committing to transparency. He started by giving everyone — staff and parents — his cellphone number.
“Most of the work that I did early on was just being someone people could call and feeling like there was somebody they can talk to,” Kelly said.
Teton Science Schools chose its new CEO following a national search. The place-based program contracted with Russell Reynolds Associates for the search, which scoured business, education and conservationist spheres to find a candidate who could take on the unique branches that make up the Science Schools operation.
Russell Reynolds pooled more than 100 initial candidates, conducting extensive interviews to whittle the list down to a dozen. From there a six-person panel of Science Schools leaders — board Chair Pete Regan and three board members (Jimmy Bartz, Kristie Wade, Nancy Leon) as well as Chief People Officer Nicola James and Advancement Committee Chair Petria Fossel — met with three finalists.
Regan confirmed the other two finalists were women and said gender played some role in the decision.
“We were sensitive and thoughtful about recognizing the need for a variety of people in terms of gender, in terms of experience, etc.,” Regan told the News&Guide. “You know, at the end of the day, we did not choose a woman. So it didn’t factor in specifically, but certainly the committee was interested in — and specifically asked Russell Reynolds to make sure that — our process included women.”
Regan said the selection committee was seeking a “leader of change” who could advance the institution from its former turmoil.
“While Shawn is completely aware of all of that history, I don’t think we as a committee, or we as a board, are interested in him spending a lot of time looking backwards. ... We want him to map a path to a brighter and a stronger future, and I’m positive he’s going to do that.”
Regan emphasized how comprehensive the search was but also said working with Kelly this spring made him a less risky choice.
Kelly was chosen to serve as interim head in the spring after a similar, smaller search. It was a strange and difficult time to join an institution; typically interim roles are for a specific tenure with clear objectives. The 51-year-old was brought in during a multifaceted crisis and asked to keep things running while performing damage control.
“When I came in, the job was largely just creating some stability,” Kelly said.
One-third of staff left Science Schools during that perfect storm, and hiring replacements has been a slow process, waylaid by the same housing crisis complicating recruitment across the valley. It’s a struggle Kelly recognized the moment he was asked to find housing here.
“When a CEO is experiencing sticker shock, you know there’s a problem,” he said.
Regan said they had to turn away candidates during the CEO search process because of Jackson’s exorbitant cost of living.
Teton Science Schools is operating at a limited level, with most programming slashed as a result of the pandemic and the lack of staff. Kelly said he’s assessing the situation and looking at prioritizing certain positions so the schools can open more fully in 2022.
In the meantime he’s still quite encouraged by the in-person learning taking place.
“Yesterday morning I’m getting my cup of tea, and I’m listening to a group of high school students talk to their teacher about withdrawal from Afghanistan. And I stood there for about five minutes listening, wanting with every fiber of my being to jump in there and engage with them,” Kelly said.
Kelly is the first to tell you that he hated his own school experience. Neither of his parents were college graduates and his family moved around a lot, making it difficult to form relationships with educators. He would sit in the back of classrooms, reading personal books that intrigued him, but there was nobody to foster that curiosity.
In college Kelly finally connected with a professor who changed his life. That educator told Kelly he didn’t have the brain to make it as a marine biologist (crushing Kelly’s dream of operating data-gathering submarines from sea-faring research vessels) but should use his own ideas about education to foster change from the inside.
By nourishing students’ passions, Kelly could offer back a support system he never had. So he followed a new path that led to schools in Sri Lanka, coastal Maine and eventually Jackson Hole.
Through private schools, which he refers to as “independent,” he sees greater curricular flexibility for educators and a more active role for parents.
“It’s a place where people are the resource,” the new CEO said of Science Schools. “The real core of this place is our teachers.”
If he does his job well, Kelly said, the bureaucratic management should operate in the background while creating space for genuine connections between students and their educators. He knows there’s still pain from the past, and he said those problems need to be aired out.
“I think a lot of organizations get into trouble when you’re not constantly evaluating,” Kelly said. “I don’t care how successful your organization is; you’ve got to really be reflective on what you do every day.”