Mr. Bonaker and the Independent School Connection

Posted by Glynn Below - 16 November, 2017

2X0A6142w.jpgWhen I got the call from a family moving to Huntsville from Columbus, Ga., it turned out that there was a Randolph connection.

When Dr. Rebecca McClellan found out that she and her family were moving to Huntsville, she wanted to learn more about Randolph. Much of what she knew about independent school education came from her experience as a student, and she knew that she wanted that same experience for her boys.

Bonaker_Ragsdale.jpgThe natural flow of the conversation took us to Rebecca's fond memories of her time as a student at Brookstone School in Columbus, where Mike Bonaker, our 6th grade science teacher, had taught earlier in his career. Mr. Bonaker had been Rebecca's middle school science teacher at Brookstone, and she inquired about him, remembering that he might have come to Randolph.

It didn't surprise me at all that when I let Mike know that Rebecca was coming to campus for a visit, he tracked us down on our tour! It was a Saturday, but when I called him to let him know I was with a former student of his, he came right over and found us on the Lower School playground. The reunion was special!

While Rebecca's boys enjoyed the playground, she and Mike reminisced about Brookstone days, classmates and teachers. "The things students remember are amazing," says Mr. Bonaker. "Crazy stuff that is so silly, but also so special." Rebecca remembered how he had hidden something in the classroom with clues for the students to solve for bonus points. "She was a straight-A kid, and she didn't need the points, but she was determined to find it."

marbles.jpgThe kinds of memories students have are often these seemingly inconsequential things, like Mr. Bonaker challenging students to eat healthier breakfasts, as Hannah '15 recalled in this post. "Some of the smallest things you do can be the most profound," he reflects, "Sometimes it's just sitting with kids at lunch, relaxing a bit and laughing with them. They remember that for a long time."

"When we had our reunion, Rebecca told me, 'If you're here, then my kids can come here,'" recalls Mr. Bonaker. That trust and those relationships that develop in the more family-like atmosphere of independent schools make strong and lasting impressions. "I always notice a couple of kids who are quiet and need a bit of encouragement to come out of their shells," Bonaker says, "and it is exciting to see where your students end up." Mr. Bonaker rattles off the names of former students and players who are now lawyers, soldiers, and surgeons, and he is grateful for the relationships his sons developed with teachers and coaches at Randolph.  

Rebecca and her husband, Dr. Brad McClellan, have since settled in Huntsville, and their oldest son is in this year's Kindergarten class. For some added coincidence, Rebecca unexpectedly reconnected with current parent and  RCN mentor  Isabell Thomasson, a former classmate of hers at Vanderbilt. The popsicle party yields all sorts of friendships!  

"When my wife died four years ago, the Randolph community provided tremendous support for my sons and me," Bonaker says. "It can be a fishbowl at times, but it brings a lot of benefits. You develop a great network. I was at Brookstone for 16 years, after five years of teaching in public school. As different as my students' backgrounds were, all students need that attention and feedback they get from their teachers. I didn't think I would make as much of a difference in my students' lives in an independent school, but I believe I have. You develop a sense of ownership and equity, and that endures in the relationships you take with you. I know that I can always go back to Brookstone and touch base, and when Rebecca brought her family to Randolph, that just made the connections between both schools that much stronger."

Somewhat parodoxically, the independent school world is both large and intimate. There is a broad network of students, alumni, faculty and administratorsnot just within the region, but across the country and throughout the international school world—that makes an independent school background so rewarding. There are currently more than 1,575 independent schools around the world, enrolling 700,000 students. It's quite common for us in the Admissions Office to receive a call from families transferring from one of these schools, hoping to find a similar independent school mindset at Randolph. As close as the independent school world is, it is also inclusive and welcoming, as we hope that all our applicants will find Randolph to be. 

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Topics: new students, science, teachers, independent school, independent


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