Cherry Hill alum comes home to head Episcopal

Thomas "T.J." Locke
Thomas "T.J." Locke
Posted: October 10, 2012

Not long ago, Cherry Hill West alum Thomas "T.J." Locke was blazing a meteoric path toward becoming a public school superintendent in his hometown school district, when suddenly he decided to reverse course.

He was finishing up a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania where collegues told him that superintendents spent all their time on regulations and policy.

"If you really want a job that gets you a little closer to kids," he said he was told, "you might look at the independent school world."

In 2006, Locke withdrew his name as a superintendent candidate in several school districts and headed instead to New Orleans, where as a headmaster he helped rebuild a top private school's finances in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. Now Locke said he feels another powerful shift in the career winds, pushing him to return home.

In July, the 40-year-old Locke will be inaugurated as just the 11th headmaster in the 227-year history of Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, leaving behind the Isadore Newman School in the Big Easy for a venerable local institution with a modern state-of-the-art campus and a roster of highly successful and well-known alums.

"In a small setting like Newman and Episcopal Academy, I get a chance to know the students," he said. "To me that's why you go into education in first place. I live next to school here and will there -- so I can have kids over for lunch."

Locke is replacing Hamilton Clark, who helmed the school for 11 years before recently announcing he would become head of the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon.

A 12-member search committee and consulting firm screened hundreds of candidates for Clark's job before narrowing the finalists down to nine. Gary Madeira, chairman of Episcopal's board of trustees and head of the search committee, said the committee was impressed that Locke was "a teacher, an administrator and an extremely likeable, articulate and confident leader."

Until five years ago, he was also determined to be a public school superintendent. After graduating from Rutgers University in 1993, Locke began his career teaching English to 8th and 9th graders in East Brunswick. In 1999, Cherry Hill hired him as an assistant middle school principal, then quickly promoted him to elementary school principal and director of curriculum.

"The superintendent there took me under his wing...That was great," he said.

As he was interviewing in several districts for his dream job, a friend at Penn suggested he look at Isidore Newman School, which, like Episcopal, is a private school with a national reputation for excellence.

"I fell in love with it right away," said Locke, who earned a doctorate from Penn in 2005.

In addition to strenghtening Newman's curriculum, Locke dramatically improved the schools' bottom line, increasing annual giving by 75 percent during his tenure, growing the school's endowment to $30 million and accumulating operating budget suprluses over the past five years, according to school officials.

Dale Smith, the associate head of Newman who will replace Locke, said he was "a good friend and a mentor, a thoughtful educational leader I admire immensely. I will miss him tremendously..."

A growing family and a gravitational pull toward home brought Locke back to the area. He and and his wife, a former Cherry Hill West teacher, wanted to raise their eight-year old girl and twin two-year boys near family and friends in the South Jersey vicinity, he said.

When he heard about the Episcopal vacancy last spring he told Newman's staff early on in the search process so that they would know why he wanted to leave. It wasn't easy.

"I got through one sentence before I broke down. I was looking into an audience of faculty and staff and it wasn't just a bunch of people, it was a bunch of memories," he said.

But when he announced yesterday that he got the job, "they knew it was perfect for me."

As for his plans for Episcopal, the genial and self-effacing school leader said it would be "brazen" of him to want to come in and change things.

"Seriously, this is such a great place," Locke said. "I want to hit the ground learning and just to get to know everyone and know the depths of what they're thinking and struggling with and then set the vision for the school."

Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123, kboccella@phillynews.com

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