Headmaster Dennis Manning, who has led Norfolk Academy over more than two decades of transformational change, has decided to retire at the end of the 2022-23 academic year, a decision he shared on Thursday, March 3, with the Board of Trustees in a Zoom meeting and with faculty and staff in an after-school meeting in Johnson Theater.
Board of Trustees President Alfred M. “Ran” Randolph Jr. ’80 spoke to the faculty first, sharing his letter to the Norfolk Academy community, emailed immediately after the faculty meeting, which highlighted the extraordinary scope of achievements for the institution during Headmaster Manning’s tenure. Before Headmaster Manning stepped to the podium, the faculty and staff gave him a sustained standing ovation.
In his remarks, he thanked the Board of Trustees, and Randolph personally, for the support he had received throughout his tenure, which has included seven Board presidents. He noted that Norfolk Academy has a “governance culture that is unmatched and is so distinctive.”
He briefly recalled his first days as an English teacher and basketball coach, a prelude for thanking the faculty for their work and friendship. “The great pleasure is to have recruited so many of you,” he said. “I feel a deep abiding love for you and what you do for this school...What you inculcate in children is remarkable and enduring.” He observed that more work lies ahead, and that best way to make the transition to new leadership "is in the most energized spirit."
In his letter to the community, Board President Randolph outlined the energetic spirit that has defined the past two decades of growth and development at the school.
“From the successful completion of the Campaign for the Fourth Century and of the Defining Leadership Campaign to the creation and growth of the Batten Leadership Program, he has led the transformation of the campus’s built environment and the expansion of the educational program and resources for students,” Randolph wrote. “He has cultivated and developed a world-class faculty and an innovative curriculum, and those teachers have, in turn, nurtured and guided the development of children who attend and graduate from our school as responsible citizens of a democracy. And, he has provided steady guidance and leadership of our school through challenging times. All in all, he has presided over and directed perhaps the greatest period of advancement in the history of our nearly 300-year-old school.”
The campus environment and resources for students have been completely transformed over the past two decades, including construction of the John H. Tucker Jr. Arts Center with the state-of-the-art Samuel C. Johnson Theater; the James B. Massey Jr. Leadership Center at the heart of the campus; a major expansion of the Lower School and the Youngkin Refectory; and athletic facilities, including the Wynne-Darden Stadium, the Pavilion, and new playing fields. Program growth has touched all aspects of school life, most notably with the Batten Leadership Program, which includes the five Fellows programs, Medical Scholars, and Leadership Lab, all of which take innovative approaches to experiential learning, as well as the Engineering, Design, and Innovation Program (EDI) that began in the Lower School and moved this year into the Middle School.
Randolph noted in his letter that Manning was ready two years ago to give notice of his plan to retire, “but because of his love for and dedication to our school, he deferred that decision and extended his tenure to see us through some of the most challenging times in school history.” The onset of the pandemic in spring 2020 sent schools nationwide into remote learning. Norfolk Academy was notable among schools nationwide for maintaining continuous in-person instruction from the start of the academic year in fall 2020 until the present moment, largely because of the school’s detailed Covid mitigation protocols that included comprehensive surveillance testing for the entire campus community. The school is now at a mask-optional status, and numerous experiential travel opportunities are planned for the spring as part of Maymester and Minimester — two more programs created during Headmaster Manning’s tenure.
The Board will now undertake a search for a new Head of School, one who “will understand and embrace the school’s Philosophy and Objectives and have a bold vision for the continued advancement of Norfolk Academy as a leader in the education, growth, and development of young people,” Randolph said in his letter. Even as the search unfolds, the Board and Headmaster Manning will “continue to move forward on an array of initiatives” under the school’s Strategic Plan.
Headmaster Manning came to Norfolk Academy with extensive experience in school administration.
After earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Wake Forest University, he began his teaching career in 1984 at Woodberry Forest School, where he was honored with an outstanding teaching award and advanced into administrative positions including Associate Headmaster and Director of College Counseling. Among his other roles: Dean of Freshmen and English Instructor at Washington and Lee University and headmaster of The American School in England, where he also taught senior English.
In 2001, he followed John Tucker as headmaster of Norfolk Academy. In addition to his headmaster responsibilities, Mr. Manning has continued to teach English in the Upper School; his courses often feature the works of Shakespeare, both plays and sonnets, and students know that one important aspect is memorizing and reciting poems and dramatic excerpts.
Mr. Manning has served on the Virginia Association of Independent Schools Board of Directors, the Southern Association of Independent Schools Board of Trustees (of which he also served as president), and the Smithsonian Libraries Board. He is past President of the Norfolk Forum, the longest-standing public speaking series in the country.
The work of a headmaster involves the entire family, and Randolph’s letter to the community also saluted the selfless service of Dennis’s wife, Beth. “We owe them both a debt of gratitude for their incredible sacrifice and service as stewards of the Academy for over two decades,” he said. He noted that the community would take the opportunity to celebrate their service in upcoming months.