Quaker, alumnus, parent, and as of July 1, 2017, Assistant Head of School, Seth Phillips ’81 made the observation that he started Kindergarten at BFS one year shy of a half-century ago. “Besides my parents, my time at Brooklyn Friends School had the biggest influence on who I am today,” this BFS ‘lifer’ said. “It helped shape my values. It aided my decision to become an educator and my choice to work for the ‘greater good’ in public schools. When I became a principal, I aspired to give my students the same kind of education I received at BFS.”
He went on: “It is nice to come full circle. I look forward to working to make this school the best possible place for the children who are here now and the ones that are coming in the future.
Seth’s longtime connection to the school is such that he is familiar with all of the facilities. “I started in Kindergarten in the Schermerhorn building. Then I went to second and third grade at the old Montague Street site,” he said. He missed one year when his family was on sabbatical, then returned to BFS in fifth grade at the Pearl Street building, where he now has a first floor office right across from Head of School Larry Weiss.
There are even more associations between Seth and BFS. “I’ve been on the Horizons board for several years. My father was head of the board of trustees as a Quaker, so I had that connection too,” he said. Seth and his wife Emily are parents to three school-age children – a daughter and son at BFS and another son at nearby Mary McDowell Friends School.
But perhaps his fondest link to the school is his own time as a student here. In an interview during his first month on the job, Seth reminisced about his days as an Upper School student. “I’ve been a receptionist, I’ve run the elevators, and I’ve painted walls and ceilings. I was a student, but I did some real work. That was back when they let students do those things,” he quipped. His brothers Ian and Jason also graduated from BFS in 1978 and 1984, respectively.
After graduation, Seth went on to Haverford College, the private liberal arts college founded by Orthodox Quakers in the 19th century. “I went in as a math-science person and left as a history major,” he said. “I became an educator by following the path of least resistance.” He elaborated: “I’d been a counselor at a Quaker summer camp where lots of BFS kids were in attendance —Camp Onus in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.”
After graduating from Haverford, Seth went to Fordham University — where his father was a professor of social work — to earn an MS in Education. His first job as an educator was at PS 192 in Washington Heights, where he taught first and second grade for nine years. He later took a union job, training teachers in the Bronx at CS 47. He then taught at PS 27 in Red Hook for three years. “There were 250 to 400 students but it felt like far more. It was one of the toughest schools I worked in,” he recalled.
While teaching at PS 27, he also studied to obtain another advanced degree, a Certificate in Supervision, from City College of New York. Afterwards he became the assistant principal at PS 94 in Sunset Park. “There were 1400 kids in one building. It was so well-run that it felt small.”
After three years, in 2003, Seth was appointed by now NYC Chancellor Carmen Farina as the principal at PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights, where he stayed — and the school thrived under his tenure — for 14 years. “I was very happy there and felt very successful. We went from 260 to 900 kids. We grew about 300 percent,” he said with pride. “It was a wonderful place to work. It was nice to have an impact on something that would improve your own neighborhood. I can’t think of anything more meaningful.”
PS 8 also held a personal appeal because he had grown up in the neighborhood. “I had gone to summer camp there,” he said. Also, fellow BFS alum Chris Matus had gone to PS 8 through fourth grade before changing to BFS, and was the best man at Seth’s wedding. Seth also served as best man at another former PS 8 student and BFS alum’s wedding. “Why now has he come to an independent school? “I always knew that I was more likely to come back to Quaker schools, so I wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” he recalled. “It was really good for me. BFS is like a bubble. Getting outside that bubble was an eye-opening experience.” Now he feels equipped to bring some of that experience back home.
As Assistant Head of School, Seth is officially in charge of all non-instructional areas, from Athletics, Enrollment and Technology, to Advancement, Communications, Auxiliary Programs, Health Services, and Security. “But at a place like this, everything overlaps. I am very happy that I am not the Head, having been one for 14 years,” he said in mock exhaustion. “There is a wear and tear on you as the top person.”
Will his own children keep the family tradition and pursue careers in education? “I’m trying to steer them away from that,” he joked. But his eldest was a counselor at Camp Onus this summer, where Seth worked as a teenager, and she took a leadership class at another camp recently, so who knows?