Sometimes in life, an ah-ha moment arrives, powerful enough to set you on a new path. For Patrick Phillips, that moment came soon after his college graduation, while working as a restoration ecologist in—of all places—New York City.
After earning a B.A. in environmental studies (with a minor in art history) from Middlebury College, Phillips signed on with City Parks Foundation, a young non-profit dedicated to the rehabilitation of the five boroughs’ public parks. “All these beautifully-designed places of the 1920s and ’30s really weren’t being managed,” he explains. “Invasive species had taken over in many areas, and residents weren’t that aware or involved. Our job was to revitalize the parks and help native species reestablish themselves.”
Their mandate also focused on young people who the foundation hoped would grow into responsible stewards of the parks. Phillips and his colleagues spent the work week cutting down brush or studying park blueprints, then volunteered on Saturdays with local children, teaching them how to care for and respect public land.
“Somewhere toward the middle of the year, I realized I was looking forward to Saturdays more than anything else,” says Phillips. “Teaching became more than just an enjoyable activity; it felt like the right place for me. I never looked back.”
Dedication to family, and to schools
His vocation to teach was also, one might say, in Phillips’ DNA. The son of two educators, he grew up on private school campuses around the United States. “I was immersed in the rhythms of the school year from a young age,” he says, “and surrounded by teachers, coaches, dorm advisors, and others who modeled continual improvement. I watched them connect with their students in many different ways—going to plays, games, recitals; guiding in the classroom or the dorm. Even before I became a teacher, I understood how vital and life-changing a school can be.”
Phillips landed his first teaching job at the Canterbury School in Fort Meyers, Florida. At Canterbury he took on high school chemistry and middle school math, along with various coaching positions in soccer, basketball, and track. “It was like entering an immersion experience,” he says. “For three solid years, I lived and thought almost exclusively about teaching and coaching.”
Eager for professional growth, Phillips applied and was accepted to the Summer Institute for Early Career Teachers at the renowned Klingenstein Center at Columbia University. There, he forged connections with colleagues from across the U.S. and around the world. One of them was Ainslie Couvillon, a Yale graduate, math teacher, and painter from the Forman School in Litchfield, Connecticut. “I arrived early and dropped my bags in the dorm,” Phillips remembers, “then went downstairs to start meeting people. This very vivacious woman came around the corner, and I thought, ‘I really should meet her!’ So I offered to carry her bag up, and we hit it off. Here was someone who loved teaching as much as I did, who loved talking and thinking about what makes schools succeed. Decades later, we still do.”
After a year of long-distance dating, the couple settled down in the Washington, D.C. area, where Ainslie taught algebra and geometry at Georgetown Prep (with Euclid’s Elements as a textbook!) and Patrick joined the faculty of the Potomac School. At Potomac, he developed several of his “all-time favorite courses,” including History and Philosophy of Science; Wilderness and the American Mind; and Science, Technology, and the Environment. “That last one allowed me to take advantage of the school’s beautiful grounds,” he says, “and to explore place-based learning. I began to better understand the need students have to connect physically and emotionally to the topics they are studying.”
From those early days of teaching and marriage, Patrick and Ainslie Phillips would build a substantive, adventurous life in education—for themselves and for their family. Their first move after D.C. took them to The American School in Switzerland (TASIS), where Patrick continued to teach and also held his first administrative position, dean of students. Ainslie taught math and managed the middle school boarding program. Their first daughter, Taylor, was born during their TASIS tenure.
Wanting to be closer to extended family, the Phillipses returned stateside, where Patrick earned his master’s degree in school leadership at the Harvard University School of Education. Following Harvard, he gained extensive leadership capacity as upper school head with four very different schools, from Westchester Academy, where he was a one-man department, to Charlotte Country Day School, where he managed a team of deans, administrators, and school counselors. At Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he oversaw an urban upper school program for 800 students; then he moved his leadership into the international sector and back into the boarding school realm with a return to TASIS, this time in England.
During this period, three more children joined the Phillips family: two sons, Grayson and Cooper, and another daughter, Riley. Ainslie continued to paint while also substituting for math teachers and pursuing sustainability projects and community service. Today, the Phillipses are a multifaceted, intellectually curious, adventurous clan. “We’ve been fortunate to live in many different places,” says Ainslie. “It has made our kids want to learn even more about the world, and it’s certainly part of what drew us to HPA.”
Drawing forth connections from many different places
Patrick Phillips’ interests are as multifaceted as his family’s. He sometimes describes himself as “a hockey-playing, opera-going science teacher who loves to read.” As he explains it, “From childhood on, my life in schools introduced me to many multi-dimensional individuals. My own father was an excellent teacher and coach who also acted and sang in school musicals. As we discover different passions, we become more complete, engaged human beings. Nurturing this kind of well-roundedness is a value I’ve absorbed from my family and from colleagues I’ve admired over my career.”
His multidimensional perspective served Phillips especially well at Breck School, a day school for 1,100 students (pre-K through grade 12) just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he became assistant head after TASIS England. It was a homecoming of sorts; his father worked at Breck for 25 years, and Phillips is class of 1987. As assistant head, he led the planning effort for Boldly Breck, the school’s strategic plan, guiding many different stakeholders through a tight, 10-month timeline and fostering faculty and curricular interconnection wherever possible.
In particular, Phillips led the charge to redefine and develop the Peter Clark Center for Mind, Brain, and Education at Breck. “The goal was to take better advantage of all the research that informs how we learn best—at different ages and in different environments,” he explains. “The center served faculty, students, and parents in different ways, but the common purpose was delivering the best possible education to each individual learner.”
From conservation ecologist to chemistry teacher to head of school, Patrick Phillips’ work in education has been characterized by a dedication to community; a delight in K-12 schools; a continual striving for intellectual growth; a passion for sustainability and place-based education; and an eagerness for international connection.”
—Laurie Ainslie, president of the HPA board of trustees
“I believe it’s so important to make these kinds of larger connections across a school community,” he continues. “As teachers, we can easily get so focused on our own classrooms. Part of my role as a leader is to highlight and strengthen the points of connection—where academic disciplines or school divisions can collaborate; where new programs can complement existing expertise; and sometimes where we need to address a shortcoming. This ‘big picture’ work creates energy and context for each of us to do our very best solo work. Common purpose leads to a school that’s full of life, that changes lives.”
Moving ahead with purpose
“From conservation ecologist to chemistry teacher to head of school, Patrick Phillips’ work in education has been characterized by a dedication to community; a delight in K-12 schools; a continual striving for intellectual growth; a passion for sustainability and place-based education; and an eagerness for international connection,” observes Laurie Ainslie, president of the HPA board of trustees. “In short, we have found a superb and experienced school leader, whose career reads as if it were meant for Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy. We are thrilled to have Patrick and his family on board.”
Phillips arrives at an exciting and important time for HPA, in its 70th anniversary year. The school is moving full steam ahead on its strategic plan, with the Wai‘aka Initiative for financial aid and the alignment of K-12 project-based learning and the capstone experience as key priorities. Also at the forefront is HPA’s sustainability plan, which the school is implementing immediately within existing resources while also seeking philanthropic support for expansion and development.
“Two things stood out to me when I first learned of the leadership search at HPA,” Phillips says. “First, the vision for HPA to become a true and recognized leader in sustainability education. Equally striking was the school’s mission to ‘honor the traditions of Hawai‘i’ and what is possible here because of the history and people of Hawai‘i Island. I found the combination irresistible, a dream come true for an educator.”
As a starting point, Patrick and Ainslie Phillips are immersing themselves in school life and learning as much as possible about the culture and communities of their new home. They have begun to connect with all members of the HPA ’ohana, energized by the widespread affection for HPA. “We have been delighted to meet so many parents and alumni,” says Ainslie, “and are looking forward to opening our home on many occasions throughout the school year.” Meanwhile, within the campus community, the Phillipses are hosting pau hanas for faculty from both campuses and inviting senior class advisory groups to dinner at Atherton House to become acquainted with students in a smaller setting.
Patrick and Ainslie are also getting to know HPA as current parents, with a child in each division: Grayson ’20 is a senior; Cooper ’24, an eighth grader; and Riley ’27, a fifth grader. “We’ll have three capstone presentations to attend this spring,” says Patrick. “We feel so fortunate and excited that our children can take part in this singular HPA experience.”
Looking toward the future, Phillips is eager to help elevate and advance this kind of curricular innovation. “We’re in the midst of a powerful shift in education,” he says. “Our mandate isn’t about fixed information or a fixed world anymore. We’re equipping students to adapt and change over a lifetime, wherever their purpose leads them. I can’t imagine a more exciting place to do this work than HPA. My family and I are honored to become part of the history, traditions, and vision that distinguish HPA’s service to Hawai‘i and the world beyond.”
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the fall 2019 edition of Ma Ke Kula.