By May S. Ruiz
There is a little-known enclave north of Pasadena where life is serene, neighbors still greet each other, and one can practically touch the mountain. This small community is Altadena, a name derived from a combination of the Spanish word “alta,” meaning upper, and “dena” from Pasadena.
It is a quaint community with horse properties and where homes’ backyards open to trails. There are very few multi-storied establishments and whatever landmarks have stood before remain to this day — St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church, the Zane Grey Estate, the Balian Mansion. It is where one can find Christmas Tree Lane, a California Historical Landmark.
Another stalwart of the community is Saint Mark’s School, founded in 1960 by a group of dedicated parents who saw a need for quality education in a racially integrated setting. It has since grown into a well-respected preK-6th grade school that provides a strong academic curriculum that fosters critical thinking and creativity while instilling in its students a strong sense of moral and ethical responsibility. Dr. Doreen Oleson, who last month retired as Head of School after 25 years, started her term when there were only one hundred students. While the school’s enrollment has increased to 350, each year it sees applications continue to rise and its geographic area widen with families from not only Pasadena, Sierra Madre, and La Cañada, but also neighborhoods such as Silver Lake, Highland Park, and Los Feliz.
For a while Saint Mark’s had contemplated extending the school to reach 8th grade, but staff realized that the school is best in its niche and scrapped that plan. According to Dr. Oleson, “We consciously decided not to go all the way to 8th grade. We built our reputation as a strong, independent school where kids stay with us for ten years and then they go on to middle school, equipped with a strong foundation.”
Dr. Oleson believes a small class size ensures that children get all the attention and support they need to prepare them for middle school. There are 34 faculty members who teach the core subjects, and supplemental studies in the arts, music, languages, and physical education. Saint Mark’s also has a librarian, information service technician, counselor, and education specialist.
It was Dr. Oleson who was instrumental in putting in place all of Saint Mark’s successful programs and garnering national recognition for the school. She leaves the school with a legacy of turning out students who are not just academically accomplished but who are self-confident, self-reliant, and responsible to themselves, their families, their school, and the world community.
These very qualities in Saint Mark’s graduates were what impressed Jennifer Foley Tolbert while she was middle school director at Pasadena’s prestigious Polytechnic School. When Dr. Oleson announced her retirement and the school’s search for its next Head of School, Ms. Tolbert didn’t hesitate to toss her hat in the ring. The ensuing national search attracted the most respected names in academia, but her qualifications (a Master’s degree in Educational Administration from Columbia University, a Bachelor’s degree in English from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont) combined with a network of local contacts and experiences, made her a standout among the applicants.
And so on the 1st of July this year, Ms. Tolbert officially took over as Head of School. Asked what attracted her to this school, she replied, “I know that Saint Mark’s takes seriously its charge to serve as a critical and strong foundation for young children. There is great pride in a Saint Mark’s education. I’m impressed by its founders and the teachers, its strong reputation in the community and the character education that comes with it. The school teaches about what it means to be a good person and a good citizen. As an Episcopal school, Saint Mark’s values a culture of inquiry; it’s a place where we encourage children to ask questions.”
As to what she brings to this job, Ms. Tolbert said “… my experience in a variety of roles and schools; a lot of energy, a love for children, and new ideas. I come with a network of great mentors and relationships within our local and national school community. I also bring a personal and professional commitment to the same values and belief in diversity and putting children first.”
According to Ms. Tolbert, “the first order of business when the staff, administrators, and students arrive in the fall will be for me to observe, ask questions, and listen. This approach will be important in figuring out priorities and areas that I need to focus on. I plan to get a sense of what’s working well and what needs to be improved upon as a way of informing next steps.”
One important aspect of private school education that Ms. Tolbert will be there to oversee is the accreditation process that will be coming up in two years. The results of this process will serve as the road map for Saint Mark’s future plans.
As Dr. Oleson prepared to leave Saint Marks at the end of June, she said, “While I enjoyed the 25 years I spent here, I am happy to go on to the next phase of my life. I am very confident that I am leaving Saint Mark’s in Jenn’s competent hands.” For her part, Ms. Tolbert says, “I am honored to be following the footsteps of a warm and beloved presence. I will take very good care of her legacy.”