Creating a Culture of “Yes” — Ellen Moceri’s Time at Branson

Ellen Moceri motioning to a map of the Seminary, Branson's potential new campus. Photo credit: Sophie Devincenti

Ellen Moceri motioning to a map of the Seminary, Branson’s potential new campus.
Photo credit: Sophie Devincenti

Following Woody Price’s resignation in the fall of 2014, Damon Kerby took over as Branson’s interim head for the rest of the 2014-2015 school year. Ellen Moceri came in to serve as interim head for this year as the Head Search Committee continued and completed their hunt for Branson’s new headmaster. In October of last year, the school announced that Chris Mazzola, who is coming from a high school in Virginia, will be Branson’s permanent headmaster beginning in the fall of 2016. Moceri entered this position of leadership during a turbulent time for Branson, and as she leaves the community, I interviewed her to give perspective into her experience on our campus.

What has been your favorite part of Branson? 

I wouldn’t say one thing. I’ve really enjoyed the students tremendously, and the leadership of the seniors has been wonderful. I’ve been very appreciative of that because seniors set the tone for the year and if there’s not good leadership, then it’s not usually a good year, but they’ve been wonderful and they’ve done a lot of great things in athletics, the arts, and college admissions. I’m very proud of the faculty. They developed a lot of really interesting new courses for next year, in coding, engineering, design, art history AP, and also some great new strands in history. That’s a lot of new courses to come up with in a year, and I really admire what they did.

I was incredibly impressed with the arts at Branson. I loved the two plays, Into the Woods and The Laramie Project, which was so important. I loved FAB and all these different kinds of music groups. I spent 6 hours at FAB. And I just found it so neat that there was a standing ovation for the Chamber Music group. I loved the Winter Concert. I mean, Mozart Requiem done by high school: Are you kidding me? That’s great.

I love the fact that we could put in this turf field. When I got here they didn’t want to do it. They voted it down and I said, “Let’s think about this again because you’re going to have a bunch of screaming soccer parents come winter and I’m not going to take their phone calls.” And it really changed things. I think it brought a lot of spirit to the school. I think it helped both the soccer teams and the lacrosse teams because they were just playing on a great surface and they had great camaraderie. I loved the girls’ championship soccer game. Even though Campbell was injured, the girls just rose to the occasion and overcame that and won. And I love the athletic accomplishments—I mean, we’re small but mighty. The win in volleyball. They just did beautifully in state. They did great in basketball. They’re going to play University today in baseball. In every sport we’re great.

And I’ve loved working with the Parent Association. I’ve loved working with Marita Daley and the Executive Committee. I’ve loved what Kim Fahlen and the deans have done in wellness this year. We’ve talked about all these issues—maybe everyone didn’t get the memo, but we’ll keep talking about them. That’s the ill effect of drugs and alcohol on young people and how it really prevents their developing good judgement. And I think we’ll work more with parents to get them to be a little more surveilling of parties in their homes so that’s not there. I think consent is something we need to keep talking about. We’ve raised a lot of issues. Are we done? No, but we put them on the table, so that’s the good news. It’s a really great, neat school…in a very beautiful place. As I walk down the hill every morning from my house, #1 Circle Drive, and see the turf field and the flowers and the mountains—it’s exhilarating.

What do you feel were your main accomplishments and did you do all that you wanted?

The turf field was a great accomplishment. Ned Pinger and his team got it constructed in two months, which is unheard of. I’m thrilled with the maker’s lab. We didn’t have a maker’s lab and we found a space in the old dining room and Justin got a group of faculty together and they went out and looked at other schools and came back, so now we’ve got a great makers lab. Nathalio Gray became our Director of Admissions, and he’s just done a super job. He visited 33 schools to talk about Branson. Our admissions went up by thirty percent, which is fantastic.

We had outreach in the sense of the different kinds of schools he went to. And I think we’ve had an awful lot of community engagement. Liz Siarny is the new director and she’s done a great job. The thing we haven’t accomplished is an Aim-High program, which is a summer program on campus for at-risk students in the fourth and fifth grade. You bring them out every Saturday and help develop their skills so they can come to a school like Branson or other schools, and the kids at Branson would teach in the programs, so it’s a shared experiences. I hope Branson will do that [in the future], but it’s too hard to do in one year.

What have you learned from your time at Branson?

If you don’t have effective leadership over a long period of time, the school can get into a period of stasis. It can become a culture of “no.” And it can cease to be a culture of innovation. I think what I learned when I got here is that [Branson] had kind of gotten a bit into that kind of mentality and so it was incumbent on me and others to just say, “No, we’re going to get out of that. We’re going to have a maker’s lab. We’re going to build a turf field. We’re going to do eight- man football. We’re going to come up with these new courses.” I made it my business to make it a culture of “yes.”

Where are you going now?

I’m going to be the interim head of Avenues. Avenues is a unique for-profit school in New York City. It’s a very innovative school. The beginning of the school is language immersion. When you get out of the fourth grade, you’re pretty bilingual and then you continue a regular language program. Every other day is the target language. It is very interesting. And very, very innovative. The teachers are always looking at the latest research in education. They inter-relate all the disciplines of STEM for one day and then all the disciplines of the Humanities for another day, so there’s a lot of inter-disciplinary education. They have the Harkness method, just as Branson does, because it’s a pedagogy of inquiry. It’s in New York City, which makes it very international. I’d say about 50% of the families are international families.

What do you think you’re going to miss most about Branson?

I’ll miss the kids a great deal. I’ve done exit interviews with maybe 50 seniors, and I can’t tell you how impressed I was by their thoughtfulness and their intelligence and their purpose. And I’ll miss the faculty because of their willingness to just engage and be with kids and ask themselves what the best thing to do [is]. And I’ll very much miss my administration. This is a really good group of people. We meet every week and we talk about the issues that we’re all dealing with and we all help each other figure out what the best way to deal with them is. They’re good colleagues and good friends. [Also], the Board of Trustees at this school really wants to be a great board and do great things and they have been very, very helpful. And I will miss the beauty of Marin County and this school. It is gorgeous. My husband and I walk every weekend on the Corte Madera Creek, and it doesn’t get more beautiful than this, not to mention the weather that goes along with it.