As Brownell-Talbot nears its 150th anniversary it has a new leader to chart the course.
Brownell-Talbot school, which began as the episcopal church-sponsored girls’ boarding school brownell hall, has seen changes aplenty in 149 years.
Brownell-Talbot School, founded in 1863, moved several times before fixing on its present site, 400 Happy Hollow Blvd., in 1923. It became coeducational in 1952 and gained independence from the Episcopal Church in 1967, though it still maintains a chapel program to foster spiritual and moral growth. Brownell-Talbot is making history with its new head of school, Brooklyn native Sylvia Rodríguez Vargas, the first person of Latina heritage to lead the venerable private institution.
Rodríguez Vargas began her duties in Omaha July 1, arriving at the school as it enjoys record enrollment - more than 460 students - and 33% racial-ethnic diversity. Brownell-Talbot’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity influenced her taking the job. “The fact that Brownell-Talbot was founded as an all-girls school when very few schools in the country educated young women is extraordinary. What impresses me most is the ever-present focus on forward-thinking vision and the emphasis on leading in education, not just for the students who attend Brownell-Talbot, but for the community at large.”
The school’s partnerships and community outreach appeal to Rodríguez Vargas. She also appreciates that Brownell-Talbot is grounded in core values around its Episcopal tradition. Serving students from preschool to grade 12 aligns with her experience and the school’s holistic approach to education appeals to her personal and professional style. “We educate the whole child, preparing each student for college and for life,” she said. “These values speak to me.”
When named a finalist for the head of school position last fall Rodríguez Vargas visited with her husband Brian Luis Vargas, an information technology specialist. Meeting a cross section of Brownell-Talbot’s extended family made her feel at home. “I met students and families, board members, teachers, and staff. It was great timing to be on campus with so many engaging activities taking place – a chili supper, homecoming, grandparents’ day, and more. The experience, the reception, the interaction reaffirmed for me that there was a real connection. We came away from the experience feeling very positive. I knew that if they were as positive about me as I was about them, then this was the place!”
They no sooner returned to Columbus, Ohio, where she was completing her doctoral dissertation at The Ohio State University, when the call came offering her the job. She didn’t hesitate to accept it. “You just walk by faith,” she said, adding that she has taken on the role certain in the knowledge that this is where she’s meant to be.
Brownell-Talbot Board of Trustees president, Charles (Chip) Vrana said a national search identified several “excellent candidates” and Rodríguez Vargas stood out as the one “most suited to take the school to the next level.”
SHOULDERS OF HERITAGE
Her path to this point has been full of “enriching” experiences. She keeps close to her family’s working class roots and Puerto Rican identity in her personal life and academic specialties of Latin American literature, history, culture and language.
She grew up in New York City in a bilingual home where her parents stressed education to her and her younger sister. “In my house, you were expected to earn excellent grades. It was always about doing your best and giving your best always. That was a very important part of my upbringing,” said Rodríguez Vargas, who attended public schools.
“For me what made all of the difference is what my parents modeled. It was about the foundations of a good education and treating people with respect and dignity, being open to all kinds of differences knowing people will see you as different too, until they get to know you.”
The education that Brownell-Talbot delivers fits her wide-open embrace of new perspectives. The seeker in her makes her ever curious and energetic. Whether earning a degree or doing a job, she says her mantra is “get it done and do it well.”
~ SYLVIA RODRÍGUEZ VARGAS PH.D.
PATHWAY TO LEADERSHIP
Inheriting the leadership role of a legacy school has meaning for Rodríguez Vargas, whose education is robust and whose experience includes teaching and administrative posts at private schools.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from New York’s Binghamton University and studied a semester at the University of Puerto Rico. In working toward her first master’s degree from The Ohio State University, she studied in Mexico and Spain. She earned her second master’s degree and teacher certification at Columbia University. Most recently, she completed her Ph.D. at The Ohio State University.
Her leadership skills showed early. She became department chair in her 20s at Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, New York and became middle school director at the Columbus (Ohio) School for Girls in her 30s. Her many honors include a Klingenstein Fellowship from Columbia University in independent school leadership. “That was an outstanding program that prepared me for the next set of challenges and opportunities,” she said. Her most recent post before moving to Omaha was as associate head of school and dean of academics at Saint Mary’s School in North Carolina.
At Brownell-Talbot, Rodríguez Vargas looks forward to carrying on the vision and progressive practices in education, while upholding the long-standing values and tradition of the school. “I’ve had outstanding opportunities and an amazing career up to this point, but nothing compares to what is in front of me in Omaha and at Brownell-Talbot School,” she concluded. “The students are driven and so capable. The faculty is knowledgeable, innovative and caring. The parents, alums and Trustees have been incredibly welcoming and supportive. I’ve hit the ground running and I don’t see stopping anytime soon!”