Introducing The School at Columbia’s Next Head of School
Dear members of the TSC and Columbia community,
It is with great excitement that I write to announce that Dr. Sonya Somerville will join The School at Columbia University as Head of School on July 1, 2023. After a comprehensive international search, the Head of School Search Committee unanimously voted to recommend her candidacy, which I wholeheartedly endorsed. Many of you had the chance to meet Dr. Somerville, who was also known as Dr. Sonya Somerville Harrison, during her visit to TSC and Columbia in October, and I’m thrilled to make this introduction to the entire community.
Sonya brings to the role the experience and passion of a full career in education and advocacy for students and teachers. She joins us from Philadelphia, where she has resided for over twenty-five years, raised her two now young adult sons, and currently serves the School District of Philadelphia as Assistant Superintendent.
Dr. Somerville has spent thirty years as an educator within New York City and Philadelphia public schools, beginning as a Special Education Teacher, then serving as Assistant Principal, Principal, and now Assistant Superintendent. Her background includes degrees from Spelman College (BA), Temple University (MEd), and University of Pennsylvania (EdD). Her experiences as a learner, teacher, and leader made clear the importance of connecting learning to life experience, of ensuring students understand deep connections across subjects, and of making student reflection and voice central to their learning. She brought these beliefs to bear in her school and district-level leadership roles, and they laid the groundwork for partnerships she forged with the University of Pennsylvania, Teachers College, and others to support learning and instruction in her schools.
During her tenure as Assistant Superintendent, three of her schools were named National Blue Ribbon Schools for High Achievement and for Closing the Achievement Gap, an acknowledgment, in the words of the U.S. Department of Education, of “striving for and achieving exemplary achievement.” Sonya facilitated this remarkable distinction—accomplished via the close partnership and dedication of all stakeholders—through deliberate cultivation of an increasingly positive teaching and learning environment and a focus on working cooperatively with district leadership, university partners, businesses, and the community to close achievement and opportunity gaps.
She was recognized as the Assistant Superintendent with the highest consistent student gains in ELA, math, and science for six out of the past seven school years. These assessments look not just at academic content areas but also at aspects of the whole child and community such as the well-being of students, parents and caregivers, teachers, and administrators. Whether as a teacher, principal, or district-level leader, Sonya has been dedicated to considering the needs of each individual child. As one of her references shared, she “is motivated to create the learning environments that every single student deserves, and she is unapologetic about her drive to create such spaces.
Her dedication to the whole child and the cultivation of community are evidenced also in her commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in the classroom. Dr. Somerville served as a lead and co-developer for a collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania to develop simulations of culturally relevant situations that leaders commonly face as a way to further develop these competencies in her principals. To address disparities across many aspects of school life, Sonya launched a project involving targeted readings to help leaders and teachers think about how to dismantle inequitable practices. As one of her references stated, “I’ve worked in education for twenty-one years, and I can confidently say that [she] is one of the most incredible leaders for equity that I have ever had the privilege to work with.”
Parent and teacher feedback was crucial to the process. From Sonya’s visit, we received numerous comments that spoke to the depth of her experience and her compassion and care in supporting all members of her school community. As one TSC community member noted, “Sonya displayed the leadership qualities and cultural competencies that I fully believe align with The School's mission for a safe and inclusive learning environment.” Pointing to Sonya’s engaging communication and broad vision for The School, another community member stated, “she had creative ideas for how to better engage parents, teachers, and the broader community; she is clearly an advocate for diversity in its many forms and recognizes why TSC is such a unique and important place.
I look forward to what Dr. Somerville will bring to the role as TSC enters its 20th year. Her appointment as Head of School is the celebratory culmination of a long and thorough process that began after Amani Reed announced his decision to leave following ten transformational years at TSC
The search required the thoughtful and time-intensive efforts of many. I wish to thank the other candidates, each of whom was remarkably skilled and articulated a compelling vision for TSC. A special thank you is due to our search committee Co-Chairs, Melissa Stockwell and John Kymissis, whose tireless dedication ensured a successful search. Thank you also to our search committee members: Caroline Blackwell, Shanequá Collins, Jorge Guzman, Amy Hungerford, Mark James, Julie Kornfeld, Carrie Marlin, Nicole Mathison, Elora Mukherjee, Katelin O’Hare, and Jason Singleton. Your considerable time and thoughtful efforts are deeply appreciated. Our search firm, StratéGenius, provided invaluable wisdom and guidance throughout the process. I also want to thank Kathryn Kaiser, our Interim Head of School, whose commitment to The School, the search, and a successful transition is evident on a daily basis. Finally, I want to thank the members of the TSC community, who graciously hosted our candidates and were forthcoming in their discussions of TSC’s tremendous assets and their hopes for its future.
Please join me in warmly welcoming Dr. Sonya Somerville to our community and in my optimism for this next chapter in the life of our wonderful school. Sonya and her partner John are excited to move to New York City, where she originally hails from and where many of her family members still reside. You will be hearing from her directly in the new year, and I know how excited she is to get to know all of you.
More will be shared about a transition plan as it develops. I thank each of you for your participation and input in this very important process—it was critical to the search’s success. My best wishes to you and your families for a joyful holiday season.
Mary C. Boyce
Professor of Mechanical Engineering