Back at it: Magill will draw on Lab experience during interim year

Among his top priorities are boosting community morale, ensuring financial security and finding a permanent director


Laboratory Schools

Among Director Magill’s top priorities is to boost morale, ensure Lab’s financial security and searching for a permanent director.

“I wish I could give everyone a great big group hug and boost people’s morale,” Laboratory Schools Interim Director David Magill said. “People need to trust their leaders, and while many students and teachers know me, there are still a lot of new people that I don’t know.”

Boosting morale, ensuring Lab’s financial security and searching for a new director are among Dr. Magill’s top priorities for the next year, which he hopes to accomplish using the lessons he learned when he was the Laboratory Schools director from 2003 to 2014.

To boost morale, Lab will continue to celebrate the wins and accomplishments of its students and establish clear expectations for the next director, according to Dr. Magill.

“One thing students and parents expect with me is that I recognize how special the Lab experience is and will protect it,” Dr. Magill said. “It’s true, we’re in tough financial shape along with the university, so we will maintain the hiring freeze, and I’m looking at all options to economize further without jeopardizing the student experience.”

Dr. Magill recognizes some of the directors who came after him did not represent the values that he believed the community deserved. 

However, he said he will not apply for the position and plans to leave by the end of the 2020-21 school year.

“Whoever it is, the new director must have the realization that this position is not a stepping stone, but rather Lab is a career destination,” Dr. Magill said. “They have to be willing to stay for the long haul and really understand and bond with the community as I did.”


Leadership and loving Lab

In the nearly six years he was away from Lab, Dr. Magill served on the boards of the Academy for Global Citizenship and Ryan Banks Academy and was Head of School and Chair of the Board of Directors for the International School of Denver

Dr. Magill said he stayed in touch with Lab news through the U-High Midway Facebook page and was saddened when he heard about the uptick in racist incidents at Lab.

“Solving the problem begins not necessarily with programs and assemblies, but with infusing into our curriculum that we are teaching inclusivity at a young age; that we all have our differences but we need to accept that and get along. I know that’s what we were doing when I was here and I think these incidents are a sign that we need to be doing a better job of that,” Dr. Magill said.

He also recognizes the problem of the poor relationship between the Faculty Association and the administration due to the wrongful termination of Daniel Bobo-Jones.

“As I did in the past, I will include the FA in pedagogical decisions and have faith in the expertise and ingenuity of teachers. I think that common understanding will allow us to move forward,” he said.

Despite the problems he observed, Dr. Magill was surprised when he was asked by University of Chicago Provost Ka Yee Lee if he would be willing to take over for former Director Charlie Abelmann.

“Six years makes a difference, but I just remembered how much I love Lab, so I wanted to help,” he said. “I asked my wife, who loves the school as much as I do, and so she agreed as well. I’m eager to be back.”

According to history teacher Cindy Jurisson, Dr. Magill’s love for Lab while he was director was especially infectious and helped her come back to school after three months of summer break every year. 

“Every year that opening address was both reassuring and inspiring. You can do this, and then reach higher this year,” Dr. Jurisson said. “Reminding us that — at the deep heart and soul of what we do — that this is for students.” 

Assistant principal Asra Ahmed said one of Dr. Magill’s greatest accomplishments as director was creating a sense of community. 

“I think what that did was create priority of all of us thinking of each other as people first and then our positions,” Ms. Ahmed said. “There was a strong human element to the whole relationship.” 

No matter what our position in the school or years of experience in the school, any one of of us would feel comfortable just going to his office.

— Asra Ahmed

Ms. Ahmed served as both a high school counselor and then administrator under Dr. Magill, but she said Dr. Magill was equally accessible. 

“No matter what our position in the school or years of experience in the school, any one of of us would feel comfortable just going to his office,” Ms. Ahmed said. 

She said Dr. Magill valued knowing people’s names and families. 

“He really wants to get to know people. When he says ‘come say hello,’ he really means it. He really wants to get to know you as a person,” Ms. Ahmed said. 


Legacy at Lab: building and collaboration

Dr. Magill’s work at Lab includes adding the director of student services and associate director administrators and establishing the Chinese language program. According to college counselor Patty Kovacs, Dr. Magill raised about $165 million to renovate the historic campus and to build Earl Shapiro Hall and Gordon Parks Arts Hall. 

Contrasting Lab’s Chinese language program from many other schools at the time, Dr. Jurisson said, “From the start, Lab hired native speaking teachers, which I think was a really important decision.”

According to music teacher Rozalyn Torto, Dr. Magill, a bass player, was instrumental in growing the music department through hiring new faculty and restructuring the programs so faculty worked in their expertise area.

“Under his direction, we really grew a lot,” Ms. Torto said. “My first year for example, in the orchestra program there were only nine students in the high school orchestra, and now we have between at least 30 and 40 every year.”

I always felt like he had the school first and the students first, and it was never about himself

— Patty Kovacs

According to Ms. Kovacs, learning and counseling was always a priority for Dr. Magill.  Ms. Kovacs remembers Dr. Magill’s collaborative work manner whenever he checked in with college counseling. 

“I always felt like he had the school first and the students first, and it was never about himself,” Ms. Kovacs said. “He was collaborative. He was thoughtful. He could disagree with you without being disagreeable.”

Dr. Magill also supported adding the Marine Biological Laboratory field trip and advocated for the improvement of the ninth grade biology curriculum, according to science teacher Daniel Calleri.

“I just remember him being very matter of fact, very grounded, very little drama. He did not bring a lot of ego to his work. He brought a sense of fairness,” Dr. Calleri said. “As teachers, we always felt supported by him.”

Dr. Magill’s experience in education and deep connection at Lab made him an overall effective leader, according to Dr. Jurisson. 

“Being a parent, being a teacher, being committed to excellence in whatever you do, and then massive experience running different kinds of schools, different locations, different places. All of that I think combine to make him really an extraordinarily adept leader at Lab,” Dr. Jurisson said.


An exceptional career

Before coming to Lab, Dr. Magill was superintendent for the Lower Merion School District in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, for more than a decade. Basketball legend Kobe Bryant was a student there at the same time, and the two developed a special relationship.

“I’ve never seen anyone with Kobe’s drive. He learned perfect Italian at an early age, and he did very well in his SATs. I was very proud of him. He could have gone anywhere. We had to have a special mailbox for him in high school with all the colleges trying to recruit him,” Dr. Magill said. “I stayed in touch over the years. Whenever he was in town for the Bulls we got together on the court.” 

The news of the Jan. 26 helicopter crash that killed Mr. Bryant, his daughter and seven others was emotional.

“We were actually miles from the accident when we learned about it,” Dr. Magill said. “I was thinking of trying to meet with him on our trip — it was really emotional.”

I went from a school where I worked closely with Kobe Bryant to one where one of the parents I met with was Barack Obama.

— David Magill

After more than 50 years in education, Dr. Magill said he is very happy with how his career ended up.

“I’m very lucky. I went from a school where I worked closely with Kobe Bryant to one where one of the parents I met with was Barack Obama,” he said with a laugh. “It really shows the wonderful academic performance of the schools I served at. I had a great career.”

As he did once before, Dr. Magill is stepping in as director to preserve the Lab experience that he knows to be very special.