When Kim Wargo decided to take a hiatus from her doctoral studies at Tulane University and teach a grade school writing course in the mid-90s, she quickly learned one of the most valuable lessons of her life. “I thought I was going to be a college professor,” she explains. “I took all my PhD exams and was ready to defend my dissertation, but I realized that I loved teaching and working with kids.”
So began a career path that would include leadership roles with some of the oldest and most respected college preparatory institutions in the nation. In 2016, it led to GEMS World Academy Chicago, where Ms. Wargo was named Head of School in April.
“It’s the work that I love, but a different context,” she says. “It is a new school.”
Likewise, she feels that the role has come a long way as well. “Head of School has changed a great deal over the past century,” she says.
“You still have an affinity for the classroom — I certainly do — but there is also great responsibility for the day-to-day operations of a large organization, an independent school.”
Among the factors that prompted her to move was “the opportunity to be a part of building a school rather than leading a school that’s been around for generations.”
Before arriving at GEMS, Ms. Wargo headed three separate all-girls schools that were founded more than a century ago in the grandest neighborhoods of San Francisco, New Orleans and Dallas. All of them wield nearly perfect college acceptance rates and impeccable traditions.
Although GEMS’ commitment to learning is similarly high — “academic rigor is incredibly important,” Ms. Wargo notes — the culture that complements it is being shaped in real time. Since the school was designed to expand one grade per year beginning with the first class that enrolled, the oldest of its 220 students are now in seventh grade. According to Ms. Wargo, “they see themselves as pioneers.”
“Our kids show the excitement of building a school,” she explains. “They are contributing to something that will last after they are gone. It’s a really wise way to build a program.”
It also frees them up to embrace the multiculturalism and technology that are becoming essential components of modern life.
“Our job is a lot deeper than making sure kids are prepared academically,” says Ms. Wargo. “Schools have to be a lot better at identifying and determining what kids need to be successful, to see that part of their mission in life is to make a difference in the world around them.”
Besides equipping students with iPads and laptops “almost from the beginning,” GEMS maintains a commitment to international education and a campus where “kids are skype-ing and teleconferencing with people all over the world.”
A recent project challenged students to determine which books would appeal to children in Malawi. In May, a Harvard University researcher visited to explain the importance of multilingualism.
“The point of the project was to study the cognitive benefits of learning a second language,” she explains.
GEMS also takes advantage of New Eastside’s location to help students understand beyond “the four walls of the classroom.”
“Chicago is a destination city,” says Ms. Wargo. “People travel all over the world to visit places nearby. We can get there in a five-minute walk.”
Likewise, she and her family have settled in the neighborhood and seem ready to accept everything that the city has to offer. “We made a family visit in February during what I think was the coldest weekend of the year,” she says. “It’s such an amazing place.”
This fall, GEMS will add 120 new students to its population. In 2020, it will graduate its first high school class. Preparing them for college is a task for which Ms. Wargo is supremely equipped.
“Admissions weighs on the minds of parents and students as they enter junior and senior year,” she says.
“We will offer college counseling for families and make it as meaningful as possible for students so they don’t feel battered by the process.”
Among the thousands who she has guided through the transition is her daughter, whom “has been in school with her mom for her entire life” and will be matriculating at Bowdoin College in the fall.
— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer