Larry Van Meter Retires as MFS Trailblazer

“As I see it, remaining true to Friends values in a changing world is my greatest challenge…I am confident that together we will make Moorestown Friends an even better educational and transformative experience for our students.”

— Larry Van Meter, 2001

 

Head of School Larry Van Meter has hiked 1,800 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and his love for hiking and the outdoors is well-known. At his final professional stop, however, he blazed his most distinct trail — leading Moorestown Friends School into a new century and a new millennium.

A native Moorestonian and member of the MFS Class of 1968, Van Meter was appointed Head of School in 2000 and began his tenure in 2001. It was a homecoming for a man who held Moorestown Friends School near and dear to his heart.

A lifelong Quaker, Larry Van Meter enrolled at MFS in prekindergarten in 1954. His sisters, Janice Van Meter Stavenick ’64 and Gretchen Van Meter Rector ’69, also spent 14 years at the school. Their father, Dr. Ralph Van Meter, was an obstetrician/gynecologist in Moorestown who delivered generations of children. Their mother, Margaret Minch Van Meter, was a librarian at the Moorestown Library and served as a member of the MFS School Committee. Before departing the school halls, Larry Van Meter served as the leader of the 1968 Mock Political Convention (now Mock Primary Election) and was the Leonard Green Award recipient, an award given annually to the graduating boy who, in the faculty’s opinion, best embodied the qualities most valued by Moorestown Friends School.

Building a Career in Nonprofit and School Leadership

After graduation from MFS, Van Meter attended Hamilton College, where he earned a B.A. in history. He served as a Vermont state park ranger for three seasons and also worked for the U.S. Forest Service in New Hampshire and the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center. Van Meter then forged a career in nonprofit management and school leadership. At age 25, he served as Executive Director of Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, a 4,000-member organization. By age 30, he was at the helm of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a 20,000-member organization based in Harpers Ferry, WV. He further broadened his academic credentials when he earned a degree in woodworking and furniture design from Rochester Institute of Technology. His passion for woodworking began at MFS under the late Warren Shelley.

In 1988, Van Meter earned his M.B.A. from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, graduating as a Tuck Scholar (top 15% of class). After working as Director of Marketing for Maine-based Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers he was hired as the Director of Advancement at George School, the Friends boarding school in Bucks County, PA. After a five-year stint at George School, he was appointed Headmaster of Darrow School, a boarding school in upstate New York. He and his wife Margaret also taught at The Mountain School in Vershire, VT.

Strategic Plan Establishes Twin Pillars

This diverse experience served him well as he became acclimated to his new role as MFS Head of School in the early 2000s. He established a culture of strategic planning which was integral to the school’s growth and development during his tenure. “We recognized in 2003 that we wanted to be not just a very good school, but a truly great school, an exemplar for Friends schools across the country,” said Van Meter. “Striving for greatness is what makes an institution get stronger and stronger rather than resting on your laurels.”

The 2004 Strategic Plan highlighted the twin pillars of academic rigor and spiritual & ethical growth as central to the educational mission of the school. This was followed by a second Strategic Planning process in 2010-11, which built on the success of the 2004 plan.

“Larry believed that we needed to create a strategic plan,” said School Committee Clerk Barbara Rose Caldwell, who served as Associate Head of School and Academic Dean during much of Van Meter’s tenure. “To me that was the transformative document that has informed everything else. The twin pillars recognized that the Quaker dimension was as important as the academic dimension, and tying those together is a distinctive for the school.”

Van Meter is proud of where the school is today. He reflected: “We have been very clear that the twin pillars are of equal height. Of course we need to be a superb school academically, and we are, but being just excellent academically would leave a huge void for our students. Making the spiritual & ethical education program of equal importance is unusual for an independent school and has informed much of what we have done during my time at MFS.”

The Community and Academic Program Grows

In his early years, Upper School enrollment intentionally grew from 220 to over 300, which increased total enrollment from 656 students when he began to more than 700. He also led efforts to bolster ethnic and socioeconomic diversity — during his tenure the percentage of students of color doubled from 20% to 40% and the school’s need-based financial aid budget grew from $500,000 to $3,000,000. Also, a Director of Diversity and Inclusion position was created as part of the Administrative Council, and Diversity Coordinators were added to each division to oversee efforts to educate and inform students, faculty, staff, and community members about the hard but essential work of inclusion.

Another key component in the 2004 Strategic Plan was raising faculty salaries from the 25th to the 50th percentile among peer schools. “Larry has always taken hiring very seriously,” said Caldwell. “The process he supported included experiential exercises for all candidates, and it has really worked well. We have been able to hire talented faculty and staff.”

“We take great care in our hiring regardless of the level or type of position, and it pays off because we have great people who are skilled instructors, love their subject, and are completely trustworthy,” said Van Meter. “We want to be sure that our faculty and staff are not only excellent at what they do but also serve as laudable role models for our students.”

In addition to attracting top teachers to the school, the academic program expanded at all levels. In the Lower School, a computer Coding program was added in 2014 which now spans from Preschool through Grade 5 and leads into the Middle School technology education sequence. In 2008 Mandarin Chinese was introduced as a third option in addition to French and Spanish for Middle and Upper School students. Advanced Placement course offerings grew from 5 when Van Meter began to the current 18.

He helped institute a Capstone Program for seniors as well as a Summer Co-Op Program for Upper School students. Under his leadership, a new rich and varied Summer Programs curriculum was developed. These programs now see upwards of 650 registered campers (both MFS and non-MFS students) who spend time on campus during the summer months.

Producing “Successful, Ethical, and Service-Oriented Leaders”

In recent years, a concerted effort has been made to help students develop skills that build on Quaker values of compassion, inclusion, and consensus to produce “successful, ethical, and service-oriented leaders.” As part of a revamped religion curriculum, Van Meter has taught a course titled “Leadership and the Quaker Dimension,” which is a requirement for tenth grade students. In addition, ninth graders now take a required Quakerism course and eleventh graders a required World Religions course.

Van Meter has overseen three re-accreditation processes through the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges (MSA). In 2014, the school was selected to be accredited under the Sustaining Excellence program, a new protocol reserved, as MSA describes it, for “leading schools.” There are only a few New Jersey independent schools under the Sustaining Excellence protocol; they include Lawrenceville School and Christian Brothers Academy. As part of this protocol, in October 2017, the school hosted the heads and religion department chairs of Friends schools from across the nation for a Sustaining Excellence symposium on the MFS campus. The school also recently completed the Membership Renewal Process for its accreditation as a Quaker school through Friends Council on Education.

Drawing on his background in marketing, Van Meter was instrumental in developing the “Great Kids, Going Places” campaign in the 2000s and was adamant that the school maintain its strong marketing efforts when the Recession of 2008 hit. “These past 17 years, Larry has raised the school’s profile in the region significantly,” said Caldwell.

Community Connections Help Fuel Campus Expansion

Caldwell also cited Van Meter’s previous experience as a head of school and his institutional knowledge and connections as a member of the Class of 1968 as major factors in his success. “Larry brought a vision for the school informed by having already served as a head and knowing this community as an alumnus,” she said. “Larry was able to reach out to alumni and former teachers. Those connections cannot be overemphasized.” He helped raise over $30 million in capital and annual giving funds and also raised giving levels for parents/guardians from 56% to 73% and for faculty and staff from 53% to 100%. Most visibly, he led the effort to expand the physical footprint of the campus. The westward expansion of the campus included the purchase of the former Greenleaf retirement community property, now home to Hartman Hall, which opened in 2012.

A Leader that Connected with the Community

However, it is the kind and modest leader that most community members will remember when thinking about Van Meter’s tenure. “I was always impressed by Larry’s patience and fairness and his desire to ensure that all voices be heard and respected,” said former School Committee Clerk Nick Smith. “His own views were shared in a manner that was typically humble and understated. It was a common occurrence for me to watch Larry as he listened to others carefully and with respect and trust. Sometimes we would postpone making a decision pending further fact gathering or further study, but often Larry would be able to discern and suggest a way forward that would unify the group and allow the school to proceed expeditiously and decisively, and also with tremendous buy-in and enthusiasm.”

Whether it was collaborative clockmaking, hosting “Hoagies with the Head” with countless students, or attending theater performances, sporting events, and more, connecting with students and community members has been Van Meter’s most important and rewarding work. During his early years at MFS, he collaborated with seven students to craft an exact  reproduction of a Hollinshead Clock that now stands in Stokes Hall Lobby. Morgan Hollinshead (1775-1832), a famous Quaker clock maker, was a Moorestown resident. A historical marker notes the site of his clock shop adjacent to the Moorestown Friends Meeting House. Lately, one of Van Meter’s favorite activities has been the weekly winding of the clock with a rotation of eager fourth grade students.

“The ability to connect with all parts of the community is very important a bit like being the mayor of a small town,” he reflected. “Everyone needs to feel heard and valued. There must be a level of trust that the Head and administration always have the best interests of the students at heart.”

Van Meter is quick to attribute  the success of his tenure to others. “I am grateful to have worked with talented faculty , a dedicated administration and staff, an invested School Committee, and, of course, hundreds of thoughtful and energetic students,” he said. “Together, we have accomplished a lot and, most importantly, furthered the Quaker mission of the school.”

The Miles Ahead…

What will he miss most? The constant activity. His office location in Stokes Hall has turned out to be one of his favorite aspects of the job.

“This is a great location for the Head’s office, but I wasn’t so sure about that when I arrived,” he said. “Everybody bustles in and out of Stokes Hall. It’s like a city that never sleeps. There is always lots of positive energy, and that energy is contagious.”

Larry and his beloved wife Margaret, who served as Associate Director of College Counseling and Art Instructor, formed the essential head/spouse partnership. They plan to split their time in retirement between homes in Hopewell Township, NJ (near his family’s “ancestral homeland” in deep South Jersey, near Bridgeton), and the Berkshires. “Both of our houses require a lot of attention.One is 275 years old, and the other is 175 years old, and, fortunately, I love doing that type of work!” said Larry. He and Margaret look forward to spending much of their time in New Jersey writing and working on projects (Larry plans to build a wooden boat from scratch) and their summers enjoying the mountains, theater, and music in western Massachusetts. And, of course, he plans to knock off the final 385 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

He also plans to become even more involved on boards on which he already serves: Medford Leas retirement community, Darrow School, George Nakashima Woodworker in New Hope, PA, and the Forman S. Acton Educational Foundation in Salem, NJ. Margaret plans to remain active both as a board member and singer with the Greater South Jersey Chorus.

Larry and Margaret have two sons. Matthew ’03, a Middlebury alumnus, currently lives in Detroit and is a writer and graduate of the M.F.A. nonfiction program at Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Forbes, Longreads, The Awl, Friends Journal, Russia Profile, and others. Luke ’05, is following in his father’s footsteps as an M.B.A. candidate at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. A Haverford alumnus, he previously worked in Philadelphia for the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a magnet public high school, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).

From his first day of prekindergarten to his final day as Head of School in June, Larry Van Meter blazed a momentous trail at Moorestown Friends School. It’s a trail that thousands have benefitted from directly and indirectly as Moorestown Friends School students around the world “let their lives speak.”

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