Delaware Today Profile: Mark Anderson of Sanford School in Hockessin

High Marks: Mark Anderson is making waves at Sanford School.

Mark Anderson is apparently one heck of a leader. His colleagues at Sanford School describe him as energetic, brilliant, dynamic and inspiring. To the students, he’s “awesome.”

Anderson is the man charged with taking the 80-year-old Hockessin institution to the next level. Before taking the reins at
Sanford in September, he was president of the prestigious Whitfield School in St. Louis, Mo., where he grew up. During his five-year tenure, Anderson reduced the school’s debt to about $7 million from $9.5 million and doubled its endowment to $6.5 million.

Equally impressive were the significant gains he made in attracting minorities to both the faculty and student body, as well as his drive to increase student involvement in community service activities.

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Those accomplishments earned Anderson a coveted place in the St. Louis Business Journal’s 2011 Class of “40 Under 40.” He appreciates the recognition, but he believes his real achievement lies in his ability to step back and let talented people do their jobs—the hallmark of his leadership style.

“I want the very best people working for me,” says the low-key 38-year-old. “I think I can be tough when I need to be, but I’m not going to be yelling or screaming. I tell people directly what I’m thinking so they know what’s going on in my head.”

Anderson, the youngest of three siblings, was born in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1973. His father was a professor of education at Old Dominion University in nearby Norfolk, and his mother was an elementary school teacher.

Even as a toddler, the caring nature Anderson would later bring to his work in education was evident. His parents, Bruce and Ann, recall a special moment. “He was about 3, and the Jerry Lewis Telethon was on,” says Bruce. “Mark watched with great interest and insisted that we take all the money out of his $5 savings account and send it in to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I thought that was pretty unique.”

Nicol, his wife of 13 years, got the same impression when they first met in high school. “He was just a really nice guy, and when you’re 17 or 18 years old, not all guys can be very nice,” she says. “He’s always been kind of an old soul.”

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Anderson was teaching fifth grade at a public school in Liberty, Mo., and pursuing a master’s degree when his father wanted him to meet a friend, Mary Burke, then head of Whitfield School. He was reluctant at first, not having a particularly favorable view of private schools.

“I thought they were full of snotty kids and overbearing parents,” he says. “But nothing could have been further from the truth.”

Burke was immediately impressed, and 30 minutes into their meeting, offered him a job. After a year of teaching, she asked him to be dean of students, then appointed him dean of faculty. In 2004, at the age of 30, he succeeded her as president.

Indeed, it was Anderson’s rare combination of energy, intellect and introspection that caught the attention of Sanford’s search committee when it was choosing a successor to long-time head Douglas W. “Chip” MacKelcan Jr., who stepped down due to illness.

“Mark was the one candidate who combined energy with the ability to step back and be thoughtful about difficult problems,” says board of trustees president Tom Allingham. “You could see it right away. He’s a young guy, but he’s wise beyond his years.”

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Succeeding an iconic leader like MacKelcan can be tough, but Anderson is setting his own pace and agenda as he and Sanford learn from and about each other. He is eager to build on his predecessor’s commitment to community service—something he front-burnered while at Whitfield. He is also looking to make improvements in the physical plant so it better reflects the school’s standards of excellence.

Like MacKelcan, he will work collaboratively with the Sanford community to ensure they have a sense of the school’s history and vision. Anderson knows that independent schools are a hard sell in tough economic times and that Sanford must raise its profile if it is to convince parents that it represents the best investment they can make in their children.

“There’s a motto here: No talent lies latent,” he says. “If we do one thing well, we create an environment where students really stretch themselves in multiple ways. Even a national merit scholar is going to be an athlete. Other school environments might be more limiting.”

Indeed, it was their impression of Sanford that drove the Andersons’ decision to relocate to Delaware. “Our main concern was that as a family, we all needed to like the school,” says Nicol. “This place just felt very comfortable, very warm and home-like.”

The family lives on the school’s campus and daughters Stella and Finley attend second grade and kindergarten, respectively.

“Now we’re in the dual role of being parents and obviously, I’m head of school,” says Anderson. “I think that’s going to pose its own challenges but at the same time we’re excited about it.”