The Bishop’s School hits 100 this year, and the beloved La Jolla private school has a lot to boast about.
MOLDING YOUTH and preparing them for an exemplary future can be a challenging process for all parties involved. There is no instant gratification; years pass before results are evident.
Consider the case of Tommy Wornham, the first graduate in the 100-year history of The Bishop’s School who can claim both parents as alumni. He’s a strapping, 6-foot-2 quarterback, on his way to Princeton with the happy memory of participating in the La Jolla school’s third CIF championship at Qualcomm Stadium last December.
But he hated seventh grade. The idea of attending the prestigious learning institution where his grandmother worked and his parents first met held zero appeal.
“I was like, ‘No, it’s not happening. I’m going to Torrey Pines to play football,’ ” says Wornham. “I had always gone to a public school, and the toughest part was leaving my friends. I had to ride the bus from Carmel Valley with one other kid, and it was hard.”
The challenging curriculum was even harder. Wornham had thought math was his strong suit until he received barely passing test scores. His shyness won him few friends, and it wasn’t until ninth grade that his academic life improved.
“The minute I played football and got that first adrenaline rush, I thought, ‘I’m set,’ ” he remembers. “All the hormonal drama from eighth grade subsided, and everything started to get easier. All of us in the ninth grade became friends, and we were tight from then on. I realized I had to study and take things seriously—and by junior year, I got on the honor roll. It was definitely a good place for me.”
Hundreds of Bishop’s alumni share that perspective. The school’s centennial year is being celebrated with special activities that began last month and continue through next April. There is much, after all, to brag about. Since 2006, the designation of National Advanced Placement Scholar has been granted to more than 20 graduates—impressive, considering that fewer than one in every 1,000 candidates receives the honor. Last year, an article in The Wall Street Journal noted the high percentage of Bishop’s students who go on to attend Ivy League colleges.
“I’m very proud of the growth of the school as a community and its recognition as one of America’s most distinguished college-preparatory schools,” says Michael Teitelman, who will retire in May after 25 years as headmaster. “I’m also proud of the school’s world-class faculty, growth in its arts and athletics programs, the role community service plays in the lives of our students and the way the footprint of the campus is changing—maintenance of our historic Irving Gill buildings, construction of the science center and parking garage, and the plans to build the Manchester Library and Learning Center.”
Rosalie “Pinky” Wornham, a La Jolla resident and Tommy’s grandmother, worked behind the scenes for 30 years. She was a parent volunteer when her three children attended Bishop’s. Pinky accepted a fulltime administrative position at the school in 1973 and went on to support the admissions department until she retired. She still swims in The Bishop’s School pool nearly every day, and though she says she is “pushing 80,” she looks decades younger.
When Tommy made the honor roll, Pinky Wornham stood up and cheered.
“Early on, I was convinced this was to be his school,” she says with a grin and a twinkle in her eye. “I think Bishop’s School has helped to form the character of a lot of youngsters. The faculty’s academic qualifications are superior, and they go beyond the call to be accessible.”
THAT WAS THE INTENT from the very beginning.
Founded in 1909 by Joseph Horsfall Johnson, first bishop of the Los Angeles Diocese of the Episcopal Church, The Bishop’s School was made possible through benefactors Ellen Browning Scripps and her half-sister, Eliza Virginia Scripps.
It was the Progressive Era, a time when more women were attending college, and men such as educational reformer John Dewey and academic Charles Eliot influenced the goals of education so that it was more meaningful to the individual. A varied curriculum replaced rote-learned subjects, and social problems were addressed in what were then Bishop’s all-female classrooms.
Ellen was a suffragette and the only one of her 13 siblings to graduate from college. Her eccentric, red-headed half-sister Virginia was 16 years her junior and a fervent Episcopalian. The women shared a home in La Jolla for more than 20 years.
Investments in the Scripps chain of newspapers and a legacy from the will of her brother George made Ellen wealthy. She was determined to make good use of her fortune by helping others. Ellen was convinced The Bishop’s School was destined to be a “grand institution” and wrote, “I feel more than assured that I have embarked in an undertaking that is almost limitless in its scope and power for good.”
Virginia was also supportive of the venture. An ardent naturalist, she took charge of the landscaping of the grounds.
Ellen is credited with choosing architect Irving Gill to design the school’s contemporary white cement structures and arcades with graceful arches. By 1917, Gill had finished three buildings on the La Jolla campus: Scripps Hall, Benthan Hall and Gilman Hall. St. Mary’s Chapel, designed by Carleton Monroe Winslow, became the spiritual center of campus life, a place where all faiths and religions were welcome.
Caroline Cummins, who graduated magna cum laude from Vassar College, was chosen in 1921 to be headmistress of The Bishop’s School. She served middle- and high school–age girls for 33 years and was known for her commitment to academic excellence. Young women were required to attend chapel and encouraged to participate in sports.
The school lost all three of its founders during Cummins’ tenure. Virginia Scripps died of a heart attack in 1921, and seven years later, Bishop Johnson, age 81, died at home from pneumonia. Ellen Scripps, who financially supported the school until her death in 1932, believed that a school should be an “open door to knowledge.” Both of the Scripps sisters and Bishop Johnson saw their vision for The Bishop’s School realized during their lifetimes.
That vision continued to evolve as change marked the following decades. The Bishop’s School became a charter member of the California Association of Independent Schools and continued to strive to prepare young women for top colleges. Enrollment nearly tripled (from 125 to 300 students) by 1962. Coeducation grew in popularity, and schools searched for ways to prosper.
Pinky Wornham remembers when 32 young men from the San Miguel School for Boys joined some 300 girls already enrolled at The Bishop’s School in 1971. (At the time, the school was still a residential academy; the boarding facility closed in 1983.)
“It was tough,” she says. “Our oldest daughter was student-body president in 1971, and I tell you, those girls did not want those boys here any more than those boys wanted to come. There weren’t enough bathrooms, and there was one ancient gym, one athletic field they had to share. But everybody made an effort. The fact that Bishop’s is the way it is today is unbelievable. I think it’s because very wise and committed people have shared expertise, financial resources and taken risks. Academics are the first priority.”
TODAY, MORE THAN HALF the students are from outside La Jolla. Next year, grade six will be added, bringing enrollment to nearly 800. Each year, The Bishop’s School awards $2.5 million in scholarships. Generous donors and dedicated fund-raising efforts have already exceeded the halfway mark of the ambitious Centennial Campaign’s $60 million goal. The campaign will serve two initiatives, the Endowment Fund and the Facilities Master Plan, which includes building the new library. Approximately 100 parent volunteers get involved with every aspect of the school, from organizing the Centennial Auction (next April 25) to assisting with arts and athletic events.
Headmaster Teitelman describes The Bishop’s School journey as “an education for life.” That assessment is sure to be uppermost in the minds of faculty, students and alumni during celebrations continuing through the 2008-2009 academic year. The public is invited to many of the events, including The Bishop’s School History Exhibition opening September 16, the Science Lecture Series (October 1) and a Choral Music Christmas Concert (December 13-14).
Every student has a plaque commemorating his or her graduation on the wall in the school’s chapel. When Pinky Wornham worked in the admissions office, alumni would often return to the school to visit her, and she marvels that so many diverse students recounted a similar epiphany.
“They knew I had a master key, and they would say, ‘I have never seen my name on the chapel wall. Can we go see the chapel?’ We would go, and they would look, and then we would sit and talk. They would say, ‘You know, when I was here, I didn’t really appreciate it. But so many times through the years I’ve remembered things about this school that made a difference in my life.’ ”