Head of School Dr. John J. Russell's 13 Years of Visionary Leadership

Stephanie Huie

Championing the Windward Way

Save more lives, protect the sacred. These unofficial words are at the heart of what The Windward School stands for—serving as many children with language-based learning disabilities as possible, while maintaining fidelity to research-based programs—and they have been the underlying mantra for Dr. John J. Russell in his contributions as Head of School for the past 13 years. Since his appointment in 2006, Dr. Russell has been at the forefront of Windward's expansion efforts, which have manifested in unprecedented growth in every capacity. 

Student enrollment has nearly doubled, allowing more than 900 students the opportunity to experience Windward’s transformative and proven research-based program of instruction. The debut of Windward in Manhattan, followed by the opening of its permanent campus in 2016, broadened Windward’s geographic reach by establishing an Upper East Side location for families in New York City, New Jersey, and Long Island. To best serve the growing student population, additional faculty and staff were hired and trained to ensure all students receive the dedicated attention and services they need, the hallmark of a Windward education.  

The professional development arm of Windward, the Windward Teacher Training Institute (WTTI), has matured into the robust program it is today, equipping all Windward teachers and visiting educators with high-quality instruction in research-based teaching practices. As a result of the recognition received by the WTTI’s program, The Windward School has become globally known as an expert in current, scientifically-validated research in child development, learning theory, and pedagogy.  

This year, Windward’s physical footprint will enlarge yet again when ground breaks on the 113,000-square-foot former March of Dimes headquarters at 1275 Mamaroneck Avenue. Once renovated, the building will serve as the new location for the Westchester Lower School, making way for more students with language-based learning disabilities to receive the education they deserve at Windward.  

As he steps down from acting as Head of School, Dr. Russell’s commitment to Windward will remain steadfast in his new role as Executive Director of The Windward Institute, beginning July 1, 2019. He will devote his efforts to elevating the recognition and understanding of dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities in the broader educational community and promoting Windward as the preeminent institution for the remediation of these disabilities. In this exciting forthcoming chapter of the school’s history, Dr. Russell will continue to fulfill The Windward School’s vision and champion the Windward Way.  

The Early Dreams of a Brooklyn Boy 

John Joseph Russell grew up in Brooklyn, NY, with his parents and two sisters. His father was a New York City firefighter and his mother worked as a legal secretary before staying home to raise her family. From kindergarten through high school, Dr. Russell attended parochial schools in Brooklyn. He was one of many in overlarge classes; he recalls 88 students in his second-grade class instructed solely by one nun. A keen athlete throughout his youth, he joined the baseball, football, and basketball teams, ran track, and swam. Academically, he was drawn to math and, especially, science.  

“There wasn’t a lot of nature where I lived in Brooklyn,” reflects Dr. Russell. “The playgrounds and basketball courts were concrete and asphalt. But I still remember vividly, when I was about 10 years old, a person in my neighborhood formed a Junior Naturalist Club that I joined. He took us on hikes and field trips to see the nature that exists in Brooklyn. That was the seed that planted my idea of becoming the next [explorer and ocean conservationist] Jacques Cousteau. On a fictional basis, I wanted to also be like Lloyd Bridges’ character in the television show Sea Hunt, as all he did was dive and save the ocean.” 

Becoming an Accidental Teacher 

Dr. Russell’s interest in science, combined with his dream of emulating the career of Jacques Cousteau, led to a bachelor’s degree in biology from Manhattan College in 1970, followed by a master’s degree in oceanography in 1972 from New York University. Dr. Russell lined up a job with the Mobil oil company in Galveston, TX, but before he left, a friend asked him to take his place for a teaching position interview. Although he had no interest in being a science teacher, Dr. Russell went as a favor to his friend. 

“I became a teacher by accident. And it was the best accident that ever happened to me,” declares Dr. Russell. 

So began an unexpected 47-year career in education. After two years at Bishop Reilly High School in Queens, Dr. Russell continued as a science teacher at a junior high school in Darien, CT, from 1974 to 1980. Believing he might have a greater impact as an administrator, he completed a certificate of advanced study in administration at Fairfield University in 1976. He then transitioned to teaching math at a junior high school in the Greenwich School District while concurrently serving as a part-time administrator from 1980 to 1982.  

As a full-time administrator and principal of Harrison Avenue Elementary School during the decade that followed, Dr. Russell realized that schools and their districts function as businesses, as well as institutions of learning. He returned to graduate school to study finance and business operations at the University of Connecticut, completing his MBA in 1984. An eternal student, Dr. Russell received his final degree, a doctorate in educational administration and supervision from Fordham University in 1992, with a dissertation on shared decision making in schools.  

Dr. Russell then moved on to the leadership position of Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Curriculum Instruction for the Pelham Public School District. He remained there for three years, until his last role in the public sector as Superintendent of Schools for the Hastings-on-Hudson School District from 1995 to 2006.  

Introduction to The Windward School 

While faithfully dedicated to a career in the public-school sphere, Dr. Russell became broadly known in Westchester for his expertise in creating effective organizational systems. Thus, in 2004, he was contacted by Head of School Dr. James Van Amburg to assist in developing a formalized teacher observation and evaluation system for his school—The Windward School. Dr. Russell worked with the Windward administrative team for more than a year on a system that, with slight modifications, is still in use today. 

Thinking back on his first interactions with Windward, Dr. Russell asserts, “I was impressed with the administrative team’s insistence on being faithful to the research-based practices that they had implemented. They were really well versed in it, and they wanted those practices reflected in the evaluation instrument. They were adamant about adhering to the research and that impressed me.” 

Tragically, Dr. Van Amburg passed away suddenly in the summer of 2005, necessitating a head of school search for Windward. With his recent familiarity with Windward, extensive administrative experience, and undeniable compassion for children, Dr. Russell became the clear choice of the search committee to lead The Windward School through its next phase.  

The feeling that Windward was a truly transformational educational institution, quite distinct from his previous schools, was not lost on Dr. Russell. For him, one moment during his interview process for the Head of School position made it clear that The Windward School was where he needed to be. 

“A part of the process gave current students the opportunity to interview me,” he explains. “They asked me their questions, and, when they were done, I told them that I wanted to ask them a question. I asked the students, ‘What is one thing that I should know about The Windward School?’ A boy named Jeffrey Kempler raised his hand and said to me, ‘I want you to know that this school saved my life.’ His words were tremendously impactful to hear. And I didn’t know it at the time, but his words would be echoed by so many other people over the course of my 13 years here. There are not many days that go by when I don’t think about that idea, which I’ve understood from day one, that we are here to save children’s lives at Windward.” 

I asked the students, “What is one thing that I should know about The Windward School?’”A boy named Jeffrey Kempler raised his hand and said to me, “I want you to know that this school saved my life.” 

Expanding Windward’s Reach and Reputation 

Since his appointment as Head of School, Dr. Russell has certainly delivered while executing Windward’s duty to improve the lives of each student who crosses its threshold. His colleagues note that his leadership style has always been marked by careful listening to learn from others and understand their points of view. With mutual respect and drive to fulfill Windward’s mission, he has worked closely with the Board of Trustees, administrators, and parents. And, of course, Dr. Russell greatly values his partnerships with the faculty. His personal educational philosophy aligns precisely with Windward’s ideology—belief in the power of a teacher who follows research-based programs and practices direct instruction.  

In his first few years at Windward, one of Dr. Russell’s most pressing goals was to increase Windward’s capacity to serve more students. “When I first got here, we were turning away lots of kids because we didn’t have the room,” he says. “The present-day Westchester Middle School campus was only recently built, and we were still turning away far too many children. The general feeling was that Windward couldn’t possibly expand more; it would be impossible to replicate the program in a different place. But I didn’t believe that was true, and I thought we could do it if we just planned very carefully to grow.” 

The first step to make this vision a reality was raising the funds necessary to build additional space, so the Windward 2020: Share the Vision capital campaign launched in 2011. Phase one raised a remarkable $25 million, and Dr. Russell was instrumental in advocating for the generous donations from current parents, alumni parents, grandparents, and friends of Windward. The funds raised supported the construction of a home for the WTTI program at the Westchester Middle School campus as well as the new Manhattan campus in the Upper East Side.  

Construction of the new facility for the WTTI was paramount, as both current faculty and those who would staff the forthcoming Manhattan campus would receive the outstanding pedagogical training they needed to effectively teach the Windward curriculum. In 2012, the WTTI facility was completed; not only did it provide a lecture hall and classroom space for faculty instruction, but it was also equipped with more administrative offices vital to Windward’s expanding operations as well as the state-of-the-art Maureen A. Sweeney Auditorium. Sandy Schwarz, Director of the Windward Teacher Training Institute, tirelessly lead the efforts, along with Dr. Russell, to transform what was a modest program into a model of excellence for teacher training recognized worldwide. The WTTI received its accreditation from the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council (IMSLEC) in 2007, and it was reaccredited, earning a perfect score, this past year.  

Three years later, Dr. Russell’s vision to save more children was furthered with the establishment of the Manhattan campus, which opened in a temporary facility at 97th Street and Amsterdam Avenue with the first 107 Manhattan students. In 2016, the Manhattan Lower and Middle Schools’ permanent 60,000-square-foot New York City location at 212 East 93rd Street welcomed 205 students in grades 2 through 7. In 2017, the Manhattan Middle School expanded to also include eighth grade, increasing enrollment to 274 students. Now more than 300 children attend Windward’s Manhattan campus to receive the education they urgently need while Windward has furthered its reputation as the preeminent school for children with dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities.  

As Windward continued to grow, increasing its student population year after year, greater internal organizational structure was needed to safeguard the integrity of Windward’s carefully calibrated program. Dr. Russell instituted the Curriculum Coordinator positions in each discipline. These department chairpersons monitor their respective curricula from lower through middle school. Additionally, all curriculum coordinators regularly meet with the Head of School and Division Heads to report on their respective departments as a schoolwide leadership team, the newly created Curriculum Instruction Assessment Committee (CIAC). Several key administrative positions, designed to serve the ever-increasing demands of the entire Windward community, were also introduced, including the Director of Language Arts, Coordinator of Diversity, Research Associate, and Associate Head of School.  

Dr. Russell has further enhanced the reputation of The Windward School in the research community by building relationships with leading research scientists including Dr. Maryanne Wolf, Dr. Fumiko Hoeft, Dr. Guinevere Eden, Dr. Harold Koplewicz, Dr. Kenneth Pugh, and many more. Most recently, in 2019, Dr. Russell announced The Windward School/Haskins Laboratories Collaborative Project as part of The Haskins Global L² (Language & Literacy) Innovation Hub, an international and interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers, practitioners, educators, and education technology specialists. This partnership will establish state-of-the-art Windward Innovation Research and Education (WIRED) Labs at each of The Windward School’s three campuses.  

In-school research using neurocognitive measures will be conducted by Haskins scientists and Windward teachers, and seeks to better understand which instructional strategies work best for which students, a critical step in moving toward individuated brain-based instructional programs. Cognitive and brain imaging research will also be carried out to improve early diagnosis of language-based learning disabilities in at-risk preschool children. Finally, a joint Windward/Haskins training and professional development program will be created for educators, clinicians, researchers, and other stakeholders to achieve critical research-to-practice goals.  

The Unequivocal “Magic” of Windward 

Many of the watershed moments in Windward’s history during the past 13 years stand out clearly because they have generated tangible results. The community can see the faces of more students and faculty, new facilities, a new campus, and literature documenting the school’s impact on dyslexia research. Of equal benefit to the community, however less visible to the eye, is the positive effect that Dr. Russell has had on those around him—students, parents, grandparents, faculty, and other heads of school.  

Leading by example, Dr. Russell cultivated an environment of devotion to students, genuine compassion, and dedication to save as many children as possible. His calendar is often overloaded with the responsibilities of the day-to-day management of three campuses: attending countless internal and external events, observing teachers in the classroom, communicating with the Board of Trustees and the many offices of the school, and addressing legislative issues. Still, Dr. Russell has always been noted for having an unfaltering, witty sense of humor and a way of treating each person with sincerity in his everyday interactions.  

He attributes much credit to his wife, Gerri, as a great support during his tenure as Head of School. “In this job more than any other job that I’ve had, my wife was a critical partner in understanding Windward, coming to events, and being a part of the school community,” shares Dr. Russell. “That’s been a wonderful feature, and it makes being Head of School a family activity, as opposed to just work.” 

Together Dr. Russell and Gerri have three adult children, Brian, Christopher, and Jennifer, as well as two grandchildren, Alice and Aiden. 

Throughout the past 13 years, Dr. Russell has experienced countless classroom lessons, field trips, athletic games, performances, and various milestones. Yet the most rewarding aspect of being Head of School for him has been the tremendous sense of pride he feels at each Windward graduation.  

“I’ve been to hundreds of graduations, from kindergarten ceremonies to university commencements, and there’s nothing like a Windward graduation,” attests Dr. Russell. “The sheer exuberance and sense of celebration for this rite of passage is just fabulous. Our graduation speakers are alumni, who share their stories and wise advice for the graduating students. The turnout of the teachers is unbelievable, as they are there to support our students. I love being under the tent on Garry Field with over a thousand people for a middle school graduation. When you think of it, it’s incredible that whole families—parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, brothers, and sisters—are there to celebrate what our students have been able to accomplish. It’s simply the best.” 

The Next Chapter 

Although his next role as Executive Director of The Windward Institute will undoubtedly have its rigorous demands, Dr. Russell does hope his schedule will allow him to spend additional time this summer with his beloved grandchildren, hiking, and boating on the Long Island Sound. 

With the official debut of The Windward Institute set for January 2020, Dr. Russell will continue to serve as a proponent of Windward by fostering relationships with institutions of higher learning, advocating on behalf of dyslexics in legislation, and supporting Windward’s future endeavors. He will also aid in the transition of Jamie Williamson, the next Head of School, by assisting in whatever way he can to advance the upward trajectory of The Windward School.  

There is still much work to be done to help the students who do not have the opportunity to attend Windward. More broadly, Dr. Russell believes a shift must occur in the field of education to help all students receive a Windward-type educational experience, long proven undeniably effective by research. At the helm of The Windward Institute, Dr. Russell will dutifully serve as a champion for the Windward way in the School’s next chapter.