It was a marriage made in academic heaven. Paul Amadio was looking for the perfect job to take him to the end of his career, and Besant Hill, a private boarding school in Ojai, was looking for the perfect headmaster to take it to the next level. But before we start this love match, the obvious question: Why would anyone in their right mind want to run a school? Dealing with all those students, teachers, and parents. Overseeing the property, the budget, the fundraising. And that mountain of never-ending paper work!
Amadio (Ah-mah-dee-o), 48, lays it squarely on his own parents. "I grew up around civil servants who gave their lives to education,” he explains. “My father worked for the Massachusetts State Department of Education." What a noble inspiration. Based on that answer, I was ready to interview an egghead.
What a very different picture I got when I walked into his office. Front and center on his desk was a photo of John Lennon, another photo of the Beatles, David Halberstam’s book “The Fifties,” a 12-pack of Diet Coke, a Peter Max print, and his Blackberry. The only egghead thing was a plaque that read, “Aun aprendo.” Turns out that’s the school motto—Latin for “I am still learning.”
Greeting me was a man with a warm and open face, curly gray hair and a trimmed beard, an easy smile, and an affable voice. A twinkle-in-the-eye guy. Knowing he was from Massachusetts, I couldn’t resist asking if he was a Red Sox fan. “Yes, of course!” he replied. Which explains the unbridled enthusiasm. After all, being a Red Sox fan requires eternal optimism.
Paul Amadio may have been inspired by his parents, but it was his own hard-wiring that took him on the circuitous route from Massachusetts to Ojai, from acting to education, and finally to being an educator. His trip, like most, had a few detours. The first stemmed from a part in his high school play, “Grease,” which led directly to a role in a professional road company tour of the musical.
After a year on the road, he went to college at Roger Williams, a liberal arts school in Rhode Island, where he studied education and business. But acting was still a passion. So he took himself back on the road, ending up in Chicago where he worked in different resident theater companies, one of which sent him into the inner-city schools of Detroit. "I walked into classrooms that were overstuffed with kids, and my job was to introduce theater games to them,” says Amadio. “What I learned is that kids are all born with extraordinary creativity—and that schools are killing it.”
That experience solidified his path to being an educator, and he went back to New England to start his career. "When kids are confident and comfortable, they express themselves in ways that are extraordinary,” he says. “If you teach kids to trust themselves, they'll take risks, and that creativity is a mental process you need to give voice to."
Creativity is the heart and soul of Besant Hill, a sprawling place on 500 acres in Ojai. Opened in 1946, it was originally named Happy Valley School. Amadio was instrumental in having it renamed two years ago in honor of Annie Besant, the English feminist and theosophist who—along with celebrated friends such as Aldous Huxley and Jiddu Krishnamurti—envisioned the school. (Besant actually bought the 500 acres.)
It was an impressive site with an altruistic philosophy: that students are served by learning cooperation and service, and by eventually leaving the school knowing what they do best. It was just the sort of environment Amadio was looking for when he decided he needed a new challenge and applied for the position of head of school. His educational experience combined with a strong background in marketing and fundraising made him an ideal candidate for the job.
Ojai resident Peter Bellwood, whose daughter Lucy had been at the school for four years, was one of the parents who interviewed Amadio. "I liked what Paul said right at the start: ‘I'm looking to make one more move with my wife and my children,’" Bellwood recalls. "Then, after talking about the school's strengths, he shared what he thought the school lacked. I thought he was right on the money in his assessment."
While the school is still in the process of recalibrating itself under Amadio’s stewardship, one faculty member has had the advantage of the long view; Tina Leslie, who’s been a teacher at Besant Hill for 21 years, has seen the before and after. “The biggest change since Paul Amadio has taken the helm is the physical plant of the school,” says Leslie. “The school needed a lot of repairs and upgrades, and he has tackled those beautifully.”
He’s also expanded the experiential education program, such as traveling, both domestically and abroad. Basically, it’s an all-around reconstructive energy that Amadio has brought with him to the school, where he lives in the Besant House with his wife, Donita, their three children, and four dogs.
But these tight financial times require a focus on fundraising. Besant Hill has a steady enrollment of 100 students, 80 percent of whom board. They come from as far away as China, Taiwan, and Africa. While about a quarter of them get financial aid, the full tuition is $38,500 a year. The board wants to expand the $3 million endowment (which doesn’t include the value of the 500 acres), and is about to launch a $10 million campaign.
Of course, the school is nothing without its unique curriculum, which goes way beyond the college prep requirements. The emphasis is on an experiential education—getting outside the classroom. On a post-Katrina trip to New Orleans, students not only studied the history of music and blues, they also helped rebuild and restore houses demolished by the hurricane. They’ve worked on beach restoration at the Channel Islands and in Baja California, and have delivered books via donkey in Egypt, where they set up a traveling library. As Tina Leslie says, “Paul really inspires all the students and staff to find our creative sides and use them.”
Amadio firmly believes that creative expression is the cornerstone of the school, and from that expression, students discover themselves as true learners. He wants kids to get excited about their potential. "Use your passion,” he teaches them.
And those two priceless commodities are what Paul Amadio brings to the party at Besant Hill School—inspiration and passion.