David O’Neil, Providence Hall’s newly hired headmaster, has a vision, which might seem like a paradox for high school students studying the school’s classical curriculum.
A surfer guy or girl with works by Plato in his or her backpack is what comes to mind when he thinks about the students the school is training, and that melding of cultures and ideas is something O’Neil says he gets excited about.
The private Christian college preparatory school, founded in 2007 and located at 19 E. Micheltorena St., has been conducting a national search for a new headmaster for the past two years. The school’s Board of Directors announced earlier this month that O’Neil will serve as the school’s next headmaster.
He will replace Dr. David Winter, who has been with the school for the past three years.
O’Neil is moving to Santa Barbara from Santa Monica, where he’s been instrumental in the formation of another school start-up, Pacifica Christian High School, founded in 2005. O’Neil served as the school’s assistant head of the school, which started with 42 students. It grew to 85 the following year, and will have more than 200 students in the fall.
Providence Hall seems to be following a similar path. When the school began in 2007, there were 20 students. It is expecting enrollment to be about 100 students this fall, and it has added seventh and eighth grades.
“I wasn’t looking for a job. I’m very happy here,” O’Neil told Noozhawk earlier this month. “But Providence Hall, like Pacifica, has a similar idea.”
O’Neil studied business and economics at Westmont College, and says he has always been entrepreneurial and passionate about young people and education, but he didn’t realize it was something in which he was interested in pursuing a career. After some early success in real estate, O’Neil realized his heart wasn’t in it.
He went on to grad school in business, which took him to Nice, France, where he studied international marketing. When he finished school, O’Neil said he was interested in working with imports and exports, and his travels took him to places such as Spain and Southeast Asia. He connected with Pacifica after returning to the United States, and the school was in what O’Neil calls “an idea phase.”
The school’s leaders began to form goals and a shared purpose, a process that drew in O’Neil.
“There was something about this school and the ideas and the young people,” he said. “It’s not every day that a high school is born.”
He joined the school as its marketing consultant and later became the director of admissions.
Taking a position at the school was “a complete career switch for me in some ways,” said O’Neil,, adding that “the school has thrived and done amazing things.”
He said he has been grateful to be a part of the school’s journey, and that it’s in a “very healthy place,” with graduating students going to some of the top colleges in the country with full-ride scholarships.
Of Providence Hall, “they’ve got a great foundation,” he said. “It’s about coming alongside those folks and running in the same direction with it.”
Some of the challenges O’Neil faced at Pacifica are likely to be issues Providence Hall has faced — or will — in the coming years.
“When you’re a new school, everyone has questions,” he said, adding that things such as accreditation always come up when people asked about Pacifica in the beginning.
One of the biggest struggles the school faced was starting up in an already saturated private school market.
“Some of these schools have been around for 100 years, and everyone is asking, ‘Why would I choose to send my son or daughter to your school?’” he said.
“We compete for these students based on our ideas and our people. We want to create to conversations that transcend school walls and end up on dining-room tables.”
As public education continues to struggle in California, private schools have different challenges, but “everybody’s feeling this financial struggle,” he said. As a private school, “we can move resources around more easily, but the impact is still the same. We have an uphill battle in this state.”
As he makes the transition to Providence Hall in time for the fall, O’Neil said he would like to see the school increase its course offerings, and he and the board both agree they want Providence Hall to be known as a school that develops leaders.
The school is primed for growth, he said, and with that students will be asked to help create campus traditions, including what courses they would like to see continued or added.
“In the midst of studying and learning,” O’Neil said, “they have an ownership.”