After 10 years of making academic changes at The Madeira School while still preserving its hallowed traditions, Head of School Pilar Cabeza de Vaca is readying for a new challenge on another continent.
“It’s gone by pretty quickly until March,” she said of her tenure, which is winding up in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Then March became three years.”
Cabeza de Vaca, who became Madeira’s ninth head of school in July 2010, will return to her original home of Quito, Ecuador, where she will become a partner with Educators’ Collaborative LLC, an educational search and consulting firm.
In a May 27 interview, Cabeza de Vaca described changes she had implemented at the all-girls private school in McLean.
“I’ve always had an idea that the educational model that was built during the industrial era was not the right one for the 21st century,” she said. “Coming to Madeira, with such a receptive community, allowed me to make pretty radical changes in the way we think and learn. We’ve definitely focused on the student as an active participant and took the onus away from the ‘sage on the stage.’”
Cabeza de Vaca switched from Madeira’s traditional semester class schedule to a model based on five-week-long modules in which students take three academic subjects, plus an extra-curricular activity.
“It forced us to rethink what were the essential things we needed to teach and make sure the students understood and were able to apply to problem-solving,” she said.
Classes now are 80 minutes long instead of 45 and they begin a half-hour later at 8:30 a.m., which gives the teens more time to rest, she said.
Cabeza de Vaca also has stressed interdisciplinary connections, such as how history is linked with literature, science and math.
“I think working across disciplines is essential for good learning,” she said.
Karen Joostema, a school spokesman, was a parent of a Madeira student when Cabeza de Vaca implemented the modular class schedule, and said several schools since have inquired about emulating it.
“I have to say, as a parent, I didn’t even really view anything as broken,” Joostema said. “Madeira was a wonderful school for my daughter. However, in undertaking that big change, what we got was an even better Madeira.”
Despite no previous fund-raising experience, Cabeza de Vaca helped raise about $90 million for capital improvements at Madeira, including renovations to five dormitories and installation of an “artificial/organic” surface on an athletic field.
That turf uses ground-up coconut husks instead of pulverized-rubber pellets, which in other locations have raised concerns about possible health and environmental impacts.
“It’s of much better quality, and it doesn’t heat up as much as the older turf field,” she said.
In addition, Cabeza de Vaca kicked off work toward a new academic building, which will focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math curricula. Design work almost is done and construction likely will begin in late 2021.
Cabeza de Vaca also emphasized the school’s internship program, in which students spend five weeks obtaining real-world job experience and do research at the government’s core. During their senior year, students have been able to take their internships far and wide to places ranging from Oregon and California to Nigeria, she said.
Cabeza de Vaca also has doubled leadership opportunities for Madeira’s students, whether in student government, clubs, athletics or in dormitories as resident assistants.
“It’s been fabulous to see how they’ve stepped up to the plate,” she said.
Cabeza de Vaca was careful, however, to keep most of the school’s long-standing traditions and added some of her own.
For example, before the school’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner, students now gather around the oval on campus, light candles and give thanks to the community.
Madeira officials for the past several years have interviewed departing seniors, most of whom have said the school helped them build self-confidence and find their own voices, Cabeza de Vaca said.
“They feel ready to go to college and very well-prepared,” she said. “This is a very safe and nurturing community that allowed them to develop their own identities and be their best.”
Madeira is aiming to hold an in-person graduation ceremony at its outdoor amphitheater on Aug. 8.
The school also teaches its students how to disagree amicably, a concept that came to the fore during the 2016 presidential election, when students were split evenly in their support for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, she said.
“We came out at the other end feeling that we were there for each other,” Cabeza de Vaca said.
Cabeza de Vaca has been coordinating with her future successor, Gretchen Warner, who will arrive this summer.
“We’ve worked really closely during the pandemic to make sure everything I’m putting in place is something that she can live with, especially in the academic programming,” she said.
Cabeza de Vaca said she has been impressed by Warner’s academic qualifications, warm-hearted personality and forward-thinking mindset.
“What I told the board is, she’s the future,” she said. “She is a gifted public speaker and had the girls eating out of her hand in three seconds.”
Gaither Deaton, a Class of 1988 member who now chairs Madeira’s board of trustees, complimented Cabeza de Vaca’s legacy.
“Pilar has led Madeira with grace and equanimity through one of the most difficult times in American history,” she said. “She has positioned Madeira on an upward trajectory, and those that follow will reap the benefits of her leadership and vision.”