Two US Deans Depart Poly, Totaling Five Dean Departures in Four Years


Selah Ilunga-Reed, Editor-in-Chief

On February 22, families received an email reporting the upcoming departure of Upper School Dean, Douglas Wong. According to this email, Wong will leave his position at Poly after the end of this school year. Shortly after this news broke, a similar announcement was made on March 2, regarding Upper School Dean Alexis Perez’s departure. Perez will also not return to Poly for the 2023-24 school year. Wong is relocating to Washington D.C. where he will pursue his doctorate in educational leadership and administration at George Washington University, as well as become the Associate Director of the Upper School at St. Stephen’s St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia. Perez, on the other hand, is moving to Louisville, Kentucky where she will hold the positions of DEI Coordinator and Director of College Counseling at Louisville Collegiate School. 


Wong began at Poly in 2017 as a Latin teacher and by 2019, he had applied and been selected for the position of Upper School Dean. “As I started teaching and being a part of the faculty and community… I wanted a more hands-on experience as a teacher at Poly outside of the really small cross section of students in the Classics department,” said Wong in regard to his transition from a teaching position to a more administrative role. The Classics department head, Dr. Anthony Gini, was supportive of his professional transition as well. “You’d like it to be when you’re ready, but sometimes you just have to take that jump,” said Wong. Four years later, Wong is leaving Poly mostly for logistical ease for himself and his wife. “Because my wife’s job is no longer remote… it made the most sense just to move [to DC],” he said, also noting how commuting between the two cities has become too costly in time as well as money. 


Perez was an outside addition when she joined the dean team in 2019. “I was working in the admission office at Pitzer College in my native Southern California as the territory manager for New York state, so I was already familiar with Poly from reading applications,” wrote Perez in an email to the Polygon. Former Poly Upper School Dean Jamie Nestor informed her of the opening the spring prior to her first school year at Poly, thinking Perez would be a great fit for the job. “I have had the best four years as a part of this community,” wrote Perez in the same email. 


Former Poly Upper School Dean Nat Smitobol was one of the first employees to implement and participate in the current dean system, which originated at the Harvard-Westlake School in California. Harvard-Westlake is where Head of School Audrius Barzdukas and Associate Head of School Kyle Graham both worked prior to their arrival at Poly. Before the introduction of the dean system at Poly, “There were big gaps in the counseling one student might receive and the counseling another student might receive,” said Smitobol. The four-year advising system is relatively rare. “When Poly introduced the deans model, it got tremendous national attention,” said Smitobol, explaining how other prep schools, both locally and nationally, soon began reaching out to Poly administrators for help in creating similar advising apparati. In his eyes, the dean model is “a student support model,” college counseling aside. 


The attention Poly’s dean system has received in education circles, and the ubiquity of the skills holding this position provides can mean that former Poly deans are a sought-after commodity on the job market. “The double-edged sword is that it ends up becoming this incredible launchpad: if you’re a dean at Poly you’re going to have some incredible opportunities that fall in your lap,” said Smitobol, regarding the rapid faculty turnover among the dean team. In the past four years, there have been four additions to the dean team (including Poly faculty who took the position after having some other role at the school and newcomers), and five departures, including Perez and Wong. 


Chair of Upper School Deans Emily Gardiner agreed with Smitobol’s sentiment that Poly deans are primed for significant job opportunities, writing “The professional opportunities that have inspired some of my colleagues to move on demonstrate that fact,” in an email to the Polygon. On the other hand, Gardiner also noted that geographic factors play a role in deans’ — and other faculty’s — leaving the school. Similarly, Wong said that faculty retention can be “hard when there is just the inevitability and variability of people’s lives.” Additionally, he brought up how “the stresses of the pandemic have really shaken up schools in general,” saying “I don’t think Poly’s immune to that.”  


According to Smitobol, “The utopian model was that you would have the same dean for four years,” but the system of “collaborative counseling” works despite the changing members. “Yes, the person that is your dean is important, but the system still works in that whoever that person is, you’re going to get very good counseling because of how collaborative that system is,” said Smitobol. Wong has a congruent outlook. “The consistency may not exist, some people might have different deans every single year, you know what though, the consistency is that there is longevity on a team in general,” he said. 


With these two major faculty departures on the horizon, some students in the Wong and Perez advising cohorts have found themselves feeling lost, especially juniors in the beginning throes of the college process. Junior Jasmine Donald has been advised by Perez for all three of her high school years. “I’m both nervous and upset. She’s really someone I rely on when it comes to the performing arts college process because she’s the only dean that I think does that,” said Donald regarding Perez’s departure. “She’s built this really great relationship with me … it’s a little nerve-wracking that I’m going to have to start all over my senior year with a totally new person,” said Donald. She also expressed that she feels that a strong student-dean relationship is “crucial” to reducing stress during the college process. 


To Smitobol, the sadness and apprehension that students like Donald might feel upon their dean’s departure is proof of the value of the support system. “It’s painful for students, but it means that there is good work happening. It’s a good thing that you feel this sense of loss when your dean moves on,” he said. Perez noted that she feels her close relationship with her advisees is a fundamentally valuable part of her position as a dean. “I see myself as an advocate for a child,” she expressed. About sadness in the student body surrounding her departure, Perez said “I would challenge you all to think about it a little differently,” re-emphasizing the comprehensive support the dean team will provide in her absence, and encouraging students to remain excited and open-minded about her replacement. 


“At first I was nervous about how the transition would go and how smooth it would be, especially going into my junior year but [Mr. Wong] kind of reassured me when we met about it,” said Sophomore Nico James. James has had Wong as his dean for his entire high school experience thus far. “I don’t think it works as well without having four years, getting to know your dean and your dean knowing you as a person and a student,” said James on the function of the dean system when deans turn over rapidly. 


Similarly, Sophomore Drew Waldman, a Perez advisee, recommended that the school should change its messaging surrounding the consistency of the four-year counseling model. “I think that they should just not promise the four-year relationship — say you’ll have someone to guide you as your dean and leave it at that,” said Waldman. “That way you’re not making empty promises to people,” she continued. About the four-year advising system, Perez said “It’s cyclical in nature,” going on to explain how no matter when she departed, some grade would miss out on a full four years with her. 


A crucial final step for Wong and Perez is to participate in the process of hiring new deans to fill their positions. When considering candidates for this job, balance is key. “The priority is always having either a sense of the college admissions landscape … or coming from a student support background,” said Wong. In terms of training the new dean, Wong emphasized how closely he will work with his replacement in order to help them gain a full understanding of the students they will be taking on. “Inevitably, you cannot prepare 100 percent going into a position like this, only because there’s so much randomness that happens on a day-to-day basis,” said Wong. More so than any extensive experience, Wong thinks that “deans are hired for their judgment.” 


Perez has a similar perspective regarding who would stand out to her in her own replacement search, “I’m more interested in soft skills: people who are willing to listen and learn,” she said, “You can’t really teach good people.”