The new top leadership for Walnut Hill School for the Arts started getting acclimated to their roles last month at the boarding day and academic and arts high school as they look toward leading the 129-year-old institution into a post-COVID educational experience. Eric Barber and Po-Wei Weng took over in July as head of school and assistant head of school, respectively, after Antonio Viva departed earlier this year. Viva led Walnut Hill for 12 years.
Barber comes to Natick from Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, California, where he was Director of Enrollment Management. At the University of Oregon he earned his BA in Music, before receiving a Master’s in Fine Arts in Jazz and African-American Music at California Institute of the Arts. Barber started playing saxophone at age 11, and still practices every day. He claims to have little talent, crediting good high school band teachers and a strong work ethic as his drivers in getting the nod into the the University of Oregon music school.
Weng is a graduate of National Taiwan University where he received his M.A. in Musicology. He later attended Wesleyan University where he earned an M.A., and is working toward his PhD, both in Ethnomusicology. An accomplished bamboo flautist, during his ten years in the National Kuo-Kwang Academy for Arts in Taiwan, he and his classmates gave 200 or more performances per year.
Barber and Weng took the time to sit down with me for an interview about acclimating to the Natick area, their immediate priorities for Walnut Hill, and how they want to help artists come together and share inspiration. They agree that one of the priorities come fall is to invite the wider Natick community back onto campus for student performances and exhibitions. “The kids are absolutely world class,” Barber said, “and I’m really interested in getting folks back to see that.” Performances of the fall musical are already scheduled for late October, although the choice of plays has not yet been made public.
But first, the cultural learning curve must be climbed. Weng cites getting to know the people who make up Walnut Hill and understanding what teachers and students care most about will help inform his steps. “The arts are the focus, and the community’s need to focus on the arts is very important.”
An intangible that Barber says schools across the board—whether public or private—were robbed of during the pandemic is a certain amount of grace and empathy. “This is really a relationship-based place, so really investing in that takes time,” he said. As students and educators have returned to the classroom, all are dealing with the reality that time spent learning away from one another was time together that cannot be replaced. At Walnut Hill, the conventional wisdom that in-person academic and artistic learning help the community move as a whole to more satisfying outcomes holds true, even in a place that encourages learners to stretch beyond standard measures of success.
Weng wants to get to know the students, faculty, and staff at the 278-student school in order to build tight, strong relationships. “Also, we come here to learn from them, to learn about the systems, to learn about the history. I think we are here to bring support and to work together with heart,” he said.
Playing a long game
Walnut Hill this year is embarking on a strategic plan, an exciting time to dream big and think about the future. A continued investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and moving that work into the next phase for the benefit of students and adults, is expected to be a part of that plan. Walnut Hill’s first DEI director Linda Hughes started at the school in 2016, years ahead of other area schools. And it certainly won’t hurt future DEI efforts that the school last spring announced the creation of the Antonio Viva Fund, an endowed fund to assist Walnut Hill in creating a just, equitable, and inclusive culture and to attract and support a diverse range of students, faculty, and staff.
As for other things that are typically part of a strategic plan…might the school look at adding a building to the 30-acre campus? Increase the number of students? Hard to say until school gets back in full swing and meetings begin. “There aren’t currently any plans.There’s certainly a wish list. The plan will be developed over the course of this school year. A three-to-five year plan that will give the school a tight focus and direction of what are we working on,” Barber said.
With the first day of school in just a few weeks, the new head and assistant head are mainly looking forward to a busy and full campus. “A school is a pretty lonely place without kids,” Weng said.
About Walnut Hill
- 9th grade – post-grad year
- 5 arts majors: theater; music; dance; visual art; writing, film & media arts
- Student enrollment: 278
- Students who identify as a person of color: 47%
- International students: 24%
- Boarding students: 71%
- Day students: 29%
- Students represent 30 states and 19 countries
- Admissions: a two-fold process of submitting an application with the admissions office, and submitting a portfolio or auditioning