STORY BY RICH BACHUS (US'83)
JULY 1 marked a new day for Principia, as two dynamic leaders took the helm. Chief Executive Barbara Blackwell (Hon’22) and Head of School Dr. Merry (Pease) Sorrells (C’79) join College President John Williams, JD (C’76), in completing the upper echelon of Principia’s leadership.
THESE NEW LEADERS bring an unprecedented level of experience to Principia’s top positions: Dr. Sorrells will call upon her 24 years of experience in building student enrollment and strengthening curriculum, while Barbara Blackwell’s 35 years of administrative and advancement experience in both independent schools and higher education perfectly position her to move the institution forward. New Chief Executive Blackwell holds a JD from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Dr. Sorrells earned a doctorate in education from the University of Holy Cross. The Principia Purpose asked these two leaders to share a glimpse of their vision for how they will go about their duties and guide Principia into a new era.
A Conversation with Barbara Blackwell
With five years of leadership experience in different roles at Principia under her belt, newly appointed Chief Executive Barbara Blackwell has clear ideas about how she plans to move the institution forward. Here—in her own words—are excerpts from a conversation that give a glimpse into her expansive vision.
Where do you see Principia heading?
I see very clearly that widening our embrace and becoming a more inclusive community does not need to negatively impact our core Christian Science principles. In fact, I believe we can strengthen our Christian Science values as we understand how to live them in an increasingly diverse community. We’re already hearing from Christian Science students who are having great conversations with their peers who are new to our community. Christian Science students are looking more closely at their own practice of Christian Science so that they can explain it to others—thinking creatively and courageously about sharing our faith. So, I see huge benefits to being a more inclusive community.
What are some of the pressing issues Principia is facing today?
Without question, we want to approach the efforts to widen our embrace with the utmost integrity. There are two areas in particular that we are actively addressing through prayer and discussion at the Board and staff levels. The first issue is reviewing Principia’s 23 Policies and considering how to revise them to support a more inclusive community, while also reflecting our continuing commitment to the Christian Science principles at the core of Principia. The Policies were written in the 1940s by a committee and ratified by the Board of Trustees in 1944. They were not written by Principia founder Mary Kimball Morgan. They were modified in 1962 and 1983, and there’s a provision for ongoing revision. We currently have a task force of Board members and representative administrators who are working their way through these Policies to suggest updates for the Board’s ratification. It’s critical to creating an institution that has integrity at every level.
What are some other big challenges?
Another significant issue is student care. In 2019, Principia issued a treatment choice statement that enables all students, faculty, and staff members to choose a healthcare option that they feel is appropriate for themselves. We very much continue to readily turn students— and coworkers—to God when challenges arise, but there are new and traditional students who want and need access to medical care. So, we are thinking about the role of Christian Science nurses who are often our first line of contact with a student who needs help. The College also has fulltime Christian Science practitioners available to students. We are thinking deeply about appropriate ways in which to provide student care so that all our students feel safe and cared for in equitable, appropriate ways.
“I want to invite every single person who attended Principia back into the fold to really see what we’re doing now. We love you, and you’re invaluable to this institution . . .”
How can the larger community support Principia right now?
We are so grateful for the strong support we’ve had from alumni and friends, particularly in the last couple of years. The impact of that support is seen daily. But we also need support from the broader community right now. This is an incredibly exciting time for Principia as we move into our next chapter. Success for Principia is happening in new and different ways from what success looked like in the past because we are in a new and different time. What will that success look like in 2030? I would love for the community to come along with us on this exciting journey. I would love for the community to see so much value in the unique nature of a Principia education that they want to send every child they know to Principia to have this incredibly valuable experience.
It sounds like you’re talking about support as ideas and thoughts about Principia, as well as financial support, correct?
Absolutely. In a talk Mrs. Morgan gave to alumni and graduates in 1935, she outlined four things alums can do to support Principia. The first one she designated is really interesting: “Unselfish expenditure of time and thought to the end that false impressions with regard to The Principia may be corrected and the institution, its purposes and practices, properly understood” (Education at The Principia, p. 178). I think that still stands as the most important way alumni can support Principia right now, because I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation out there. I think there are a great number of alumni who, for various reasons, have become disengaged from Principia. I want to invite every single person who attended Principia back into the fold to really see what we’re doing now. We love you, and you’re invaluable to this institution— we want to hear your voice and welcome you to participate and support as part of our history and the richness of our alumni body.
Leading with Love: Meet Head of School Dr. Merry Sorrells
LOVE isn't a line item on Dr. Merry (Pease) Sorrells’s (C’79) resume, but it could be. It’s the quality that stands out most when first meeting Principia’s new Head of School. Her love for Christian Science, her love of Principia, her love for the New Orleans-area communities that she’s served as an educator, and her love of family come through as clear as a blue-sky Gulf of Mexico morning.
“WE HAVE FOUR CORE VALUES AT PRINCIPIA: Excellence, Character, Diversity, and Love,” says Dr. Sorrells (pronounced soar-uls). “I have been part of several schools that have had kindness, gentleness, honesty, and honor as values, but I have never been in a school where Love is identified as a core value. Love is a bold statement, and Principia should be proud of that. It sets us apart.” As Dr. Sorrells officially stepped into her new role July 1, she committed to building on the strong initiatives that are already underway at the School.
Sorrells brings extensive experience and an impressive track record on the private-school enrollment front. Before coming to Principia, she helped two private schools in New Orleans make strong recoveries from enrollment crises. These past experiences inform how she views Principia’s future. And that future includes widening Principia’s embrace to include students from a variety of backgrounds— including those without a Christian Science background. “We want to make sure everyone on campus is cared for—thoughtfully, lovingly, and properly,” she emphasizes. Sorrells was able to bring this kind of committed, loving approach when she was asked to head up St. Paul’s Episcopal School in New Orleans a year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed part of the city. The school was devastated by the flood waters, and enrollment plummeted as a result. To bring families back, the school became a hub for sustainability. The school planted gardens, cleaned up the neighborhood, and included sustainability as an essential aspect of the curriculum. Enrollment climbed back to pre- Katrina levels.
Strengthening Christian Science Stakes
“At Principia, our North Star is our mission to serve the Cause of Christian Science. We have to hold up every decision to that North Star and say, ‘Does this fit?’” Sorrells says. She sees Principia’s efforts to include families and students from a diversity of backgrounds as a perfect example of how to serve the Cause unselfishly. “As we welcome families who are new to our mission, they are blessed,” she says. “Just think of the gift of Christian Science that we are sharing with the greater community and the world.”
“. . . I have never been in a school where Love is identified as a core value. Love is a bold statement, and [Principia] should be really proud of that. It sets us apart.”
“Future-ready curriculum” is a term that’s been used at Principia for years now, but for the past decade, Sorrells has been helping move schools towards the “four Cs” of future-ready education—critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication. At St. Martin’s Episcopal School, Dr. Sorrells guided the school towards the “four Cs.” They built a Center for Innovation and Design—helping that school become “known for being the school that was preparing kids, not just for college, but for their futures,” she says.
Leading with Humility
Navigating challenges—and opportunities— with humility and love are important themes of her past leadership, and Sorrells looks forward to using those qualities at today’s Principia School. “Principia is a gemstone. As with any school, there are challenges to be met and obstacles to overcome,” Sorrells says. “But I am confident that the team in place brings all the talent needed to meet and overcome the challenges in front of us, and together we will light the way toward a bright future for our students.”