A Head Above The Rest

Steve and Stephanie Hancock have passed along many admirable traits to their children, including a love of music, a strong work ethic, and a good sense of humor. Get to know the Hancocks as they embark on their first year at USM.

On a crisp, bright Saturday in early December, a small contingent of “USM Today” staff (one writer and one photographer) drove to the head of school residence on campus to photograph Steve Hancock, USM’s new head of school, and his family for this publication. Before they even had a chance to ring the doorbell, Pepper—the family’s small but assertive Bichon-poodle mix—announced their arrival. Stephanie, Steve’s wife of 26 years, welcomed them inside, where something smelled delicious. Steve was teaching his daughter, Emily (home for winter break from Oberlin Conservatory of Music), how to make caramel corn. He loves to cook, and it was clear by the well-worn baking sheet and lack of recipe card that he had made the treat many times before. At one point, Emily over-poured the vanilla and was attempting to return the excess to the bottle when Steve said, “No, no, leave it. You can never have too much vanilla.”

The Hancock family: (from left) Clay, Emily, Pepper, Steve and Stephanie.

This is a side of Steve Hancock, USM’s ninth of head of school, that much of the school has not yet seen. The relaxed, joking, in-his-element, consummate-educator side. As the caramel corn baked in the oven, Steve happily played holiday tunes at the family piano while Stephanie jumped in to provide vocal accompaniment. It’s clear that music is a unifying element in the family. Steve studied violin performance and music education at Lawrence University, and was an orchestra teacher for the majority of his teaching career. Stephanie majored in music education at the University of Illinois and has taught instrumental music for more than 25 years. Emily studies clarinet at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Clay, their youngest, is a freshman violin major at New England Conservatory of Music, although his first semester was virtual due to COVID-19. It’s also clear that Stephanie and Steve have passed on their healthy sense of humor to their kids—the morning was filled with good-natured teasing and affectionate eye rolling.

A Needle in a Haystack

Hancock’s first official day as head of school (on July 1, 2020) was the end of a long journey to get to that point. Filling any head of school position is tricky, but especially for a school the size and caliber of USM. The individual must be many things at once: an approachable team builder with an understanding of financial management; a charismatic speaker who’s also a careful, empathetic listener; and someone who can placate groups that can be at opposite ends of the spectrum on myriad issues. Furthermore, the individual must share a commitment to developing, nurturing, and sustaining a community that values diversity, equity, and inclusion, and must demonstrate an obvious joy and passion when amongst students of all ages. He or she must do all of this and more while embracing Milwaukee’s culture and, especially, its climate.

In April 2020, while living in Memphis and under lockdown due to COVID-19, the Hancock family gave an impromptu concert at the end of their driveway to lift spirits in their neighborhood.

When USM’s eighth head of school, Laura Fuller, announced her plans to retire after the 2019–20 school year, members of the Board of Trustees wasted no time in starting the process to find her replacement. They established a search committee and hired consultants from Educators’ Collaborative, who worked to survey members of the school community to clarify the goals and opportunities for the role. “We really tried to involve the entire USM community in the search,” said Jackie Darr, trustee and co-chair of the search committee along with fellow trustee Mike Darrow ’86. “It’s a challenge to manage a school that spans prekindergarten through grade 12, and it was clear that members of the community were looking for a head who could connect us cross divisionally.”

While the committee was busy conducting surveys and building a position description, Hancock was quietly conducting his own research while continuing his role as headmaster at Presbyterian Day School, a PK–6 school in Memphis, Tennessee. “I really wanted to be in a PK–12 school again because I missed some of the things you can do with older students,” he said. “Everything from going to games and plays, but also the conversations you can have with them. Also, Stephanie and I wanted to move closer to our family and friends in the Midwest.” To organize his search, Hancock created a spreadsheet of leading independent schools in the Midwest. Coincidentally, the day he created the spreadsheet—Jan. 9, 2019—was the same day Fuller announced her retirement. “I saw the announcement on USM’s website and I went home and said, ‘Stephanie! Look!’”

As he researched USM, it didn’t take long for Hancock to realize that it was a special place. “Right from the beginning, the Common Trust spoke to me,” he said. “Having these tenets of respect, trust, honesty, fairness, and kindness, just dovetailed exactly with what I believe in, in terms of educational philosophy. Everything just meshed perfectly together.” He applied immediately, and began to wait.

The Final Four

After months of reviewing application materials and conducting phone and in-person interviews, by mid-summer 2019 the search committee had narrowed down the candidate pool until only Hancock and three other finalists remained. Each candidate was invited to campus for an intense, two-day visit consisting of meetings, events, and multiple open forums where faculty, staff, parents, and alumni were able to meet the candidates and ask questions. While all four candidates were highly qualified for the position, Hancock made an impression. “From the moment Steve walked in, he immediately engaged with the students. His sincere passion and love for kids stood out to us,” said Darr. “And when he met with faculty and staff, it was clear he had a genuine interest and desire to learn about our school.” As for Hancock, if he was nervous during the community forums he didn’t show it. “I just tried to be honest and share my experiences and thoughts,” he said. “I probably could have said what I thought people in the room would want to hear, but in the end that’s not helpful to me or them.”

Shortly after Hancock—the last of the four candidates to interview—had completed his visit, the search committee presented him as the unanimous nominee, and the Board of Trustees approved the group’s recommendation. “In speaking with his references, and throughout the interview process, it was unquestionable that we were getting someone of the highest character,” said Darr, “someone who had a significant track record of bringing people and communities together, and was highly respected by the people he worked with.” Board of Trustees President Stephen Guy called Hancock to deliver the news. “I remember exactly where I was standing when Steve [Guy] called me,” said Hancock, “I was actually eating a bratwurst in the Milwaukee airport, waiting to board the flight back to Memphis. Stephanie and I both were very excited. Jobs like this don’t come along very often, so I was thrilled.”

A New Job, a New Home, and a Pandemic

Nothing could dampen Hancock’s excitement for his new role, not even a global pandemic, and he tackled issues with gusto. Starting in January 2020 he held monthly phone calls with Fuller, Assistant Head of School Gregg Bach, and members of the school’s leadership team, and was kept informed of all decisions made related to the COVID-19 pandemic. His first official day as head of school was July 1, 2020, and he made reopening the school, which had moved to distance learning in April, a top priority. By July 22 the school had published its reopening plan and by mid-August had made significant changes to campus to support in-person learning safely. As the academic year progressed, Hancock has been instrumental in leading the school through the challenges of quarantines, isolations, closures, distance-learning, on-campus testing for COVID-19, and other pandemic-related issues.

Steve and his daughter, Emily, can often be found cooking in the kitchen together. Here, they made caramel corn while his wife, Stephanie, and son, Clay, patiently waited for samples.

He has not lost sight of other important work, however, including the school’s justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) efforts. In August 2020 he named Dr. Gina Haughton the school’s director of equity and student success, and has held several meetings with related school groups, including SEEK Diversity, Parents of Students of Color, the Alumni Association, and Upper School prefects. Hancock came to USM with a track record of work he has done to expand opportunity for all students. While at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, he started Odyssey, an educational six-week summer program targeting Atlanta public school students in rising grades 1 to 12 from underserved communities (read more about it). “The best learning happens in environments where everyone feels safe, valued, celebrated, and known,” he said.

Looking Ahead

Hancock is excited to get to know the broader USM community, and is looking forward to being able to travel throughout the country to meet alumni as well as hosting small, informal gatherings in his home with students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni. He is making a concerted effort to get to know students personally, as well. In addition to serving as a 4th grade Tower Project mentor, he is in the process of coordinating meetings with small groups of seniors, two to three times per week, in the boardroom. Because he will be presenting them as USM graduates in the spring, he wants to know them on a personal level. He is also helping to drive efforts for the school’s next strategic plan, which is a vital exercise in charting the school’s course and identifying key priorities for the next five to seven years.

Steve frequently visits Preschool and Lower School classrooms to read out loud, and is adept at giving characters silly voices and accents.

Our morning photo shoot was wrapping up, and as I packed up my things, said my goodbyes, and headed out to my car, I realized that I was sad to leave. I would have been happy to stay there all day and hang out with the Hancock family in their beautiful home, listening to their music, hearing their stories, and maybe even playing a card game or two. But I didn’t need to worry. On Monday morning there was a small package of freshly made caramel corn sitting on my desk, with a hand-written note from Steve and Stephanie thanking me for spending part of my Saturday with them. I took a bite, and it was delicious.

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