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Bo Lauder Brings Friends Seminary into 21st Century with Arabic and iPads

By Mary Johnson | March 26, 2012 8:04am
Bo Lauder, 50, has been the principal of Friends Seminary in Gramercy for the past 10 years.
Bo Lauder, 50, has been the principal of Friends Seminary in Gramercy for the past 10 years.
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Friends Seminary

Just call him “Bo.”

That’s what all 730 students at Friends Seminary, a Quaker school on 222 E. 16th Street in Gramercy, call their 50-year-old principal, who lives in nearby Murray Hill. Lauder has led the school, which teaches students from kindergarten through 12th grade, for the past decade. In that time, he has strengthened the school’s financial footing, added Arabic language programming, distributed free iPads and constructed a brand new library, which he said has become the intellectual heart of the 226-year-old Quaker school.

Q: Where are you from originally?

Bo Lauder: I’m from Alabama originally, a small town outside of Montgomery.

I was in Alabama until I went to graduate school in Chapel Hill, N.C., at the University of North Carolina, and studied musicology, which is music history and theory. It’s more the academic side of music.

Then, I thought I was taking a year off between my masters and Ph.D., and I needed a job. So I took a job at an Episcopal boarding school in Lynchburg, Va. And the rest is sort of history. I never went back to finish the Ph.D., and I really just sort of stumbled into a career that I never even contemplated. I thought I’d be a college professor.

Q: How long did you stay there?

I was there seven years.

I became the dean of students, and that job was responsible for the residential life of the school. I had a great time, and that’s sort of where I got interested in administration and realized I had a knack for it and that, while I was a good teacher, I wasn’t a great teacher and that my talents probably were more in line with running things, with being an administrator.

So it just so happens that I took a job at the Sidwell Friends School [a Quaker school in Washington, D.C.] during Chelsea Clinton’s first year at Sidwell.

To be in close proximity to the first family and to see them as parents, it was a great thing.

Q: How does the structure of a Quaker school differ from other schools?

A basic illustration of how it's different is the fact that my students call me "Bo." We’re a first-name school, and I think that really stems from the belief that Quakers have that inequality, that certain artificial barriers that separate people in other contexts, just don’t need to be. I think it's a manifestation of that respect for everybody that kindergartners call me by my first name. It still drives my mother crazy, but I can’t imagine going to a school where I was "Mr. Lauder."

Friends Seminary teaches students from kindergarten to 12th grade out of its campus at 222 East 16th Street.
Friends Seminary teaches students from kindergarten to 12th grade out of its campus at 222 East 16th Street.
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Friends Seminary

Q: What distinguishes Friends Seminary from other schools in New York City?

We instituted an Arabic language program at the school, and we believe that we were the only independent school in the city of New York to have integrated it as we have in middle school and upper school. Next year will be our fourth year of offering it, and we’ll have four full sections. We’ll be adding Mandarin in the fall.

We were early adopters of the iPad, and this year, kindergartners, fifth grade and ninth grade all got iPads. This was sort of a pilot year. Next year, kindergarten, first, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth and tenth [grades] will all get iPads, and the following year the whole school will have them.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced since you’ve come to the school?

I definitely think getting the school properly resourced and on strong financial footing, especially looking backwards. I mean who knew that 2008 was coming?

What we were seeing after 2008 was people who had never had trouble paying tuition, suddenly losing their incomes or suddenly not having money for tuition, so we set up a special financial aid fund for short-term temporary help to keep people in the community. And we know of 17 people who stayed here as a result, who otherwise would not have been able to keep their children in the school.

Q: What has been your most rewarding experience in your career?

A transition I’ve had to make as a head of school is that what I do now probably has more impact on the institution than it does on individual students. While I like to think that what I do for the institution reverberates and has a positive impact on individual students, it’s been hard letting go of more daily, constant contact with students.