Joe Puggelli initially wasn’t happy about becoming the Seattle Academy Head of School. Before the promotion in 2009, Joe served under Jean Orvis as “Assistant Head of School,” a post he describes as the perfect job. “I got to be setting the long-term strategic plan for the school, I got to be a part of the daily operations, and I got to teach American Studies,” Puggelli said, “so when Jean came into my office and told me she was retiring, I said, ‘That means I have to give all this up!?!'”
Joe began his career at Seattle Academy in 1996, taking over for Rob Phillips as the Head of the Upper School. Joe came upon the position by surprise as he prepared to move to the East Coast after working at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma. Following a meeting with founding Director Jean Orvis and visiting the school, he found the community to be “very interesting” and ended up starting in July of that year.
Joe was attracted to SAAS partly because of his experience in the military. “Most of the guys I was with were draftees, and not considered to be the best and the brightest, but I found that they had an incredible intelligence expressed in different ways.”
Puggelli related this to his first impressions of Seattle Academy: “I found that there was much more intelligence at SAAS than people said there was. Back then, we had the reputation of [a last-resort] private school. What I saw was an incredible group of young people that weren’t all from a cookie cutter.”
This broader definition of human talent, along with the focus on the individual student is what Joe credits for Seattle Academy’s success. “The mission was different, and I believed that we would eventually attract smart parents who realized that what we were doing was a better preparation for the world that was coming, not the past world.”
One of Joe’s favorite memories was creating and teaching the American Studies course. Joe came to SAAS teaching Junior Honors English as Rob Phillips taught Junior Honors American History. After observing each other’s classes and their similar way of thinking, the two teachers got together and said, “Why don’t we put together a seminar and really do some interesting things with an integrated History and English class?” After moving the Upper School down to the Vanderbilt, Joe says, the class became what it was meant to be, with the second floor fishbowl classroom, and breakout rooms.
Bringing the upper school down to the 12th Avenue block was one of the greatest changes that occurred during Joe’s time here. “It was like growing from a mom and pop operation to a larger business,” Joe described, “and you can’t run a large business like you run a mom and pop business.” The freshman class grew from 18 to 36 in a single year and many middle schoolers were now excited to stay for upper school, because they didn’t just have to “cross the line in the hallway of the Temple.”
Having witnessed these massive changes, Joe doesn’t entertain the debate over whether or not SAAS is losing its culture. “We’ve always adapted what we were doing to better cater to our mission.” Puggelli said “If your mission is to prepare students for college and for life, you have to adjust what you’re doing to make sure you’re preparing them for life. I’m a big believer that these changes, [such as the new 8-block schedule], are going to better prepare people for the world that’s coming.”
Whether it’s his famous cat memorabilia, red BMW, fanny pack, or his Uncle Rocco, most SAAS students and faculty have a favorite story they associate with Joe Puggelli.
While Joe doesn’t believe in individual legacies, he leaves SAAS with a freshman class of 156, up from 18 in 1996, and four more buildings, not to count the dozens of new programs and classes created during his time here, including as our Learning Support Program, which Joe deems “the best in the country.”
“I want to believe that SAAS is a much better place now than when I started, and that I played a small part in that,” Joe said.
As we grow and expand in the years to come without Joe as our leader, we should take comfort knowing that Joe trusts the community will continue to thrive and prosper as it always has, with its members being successful in unconventional ways.
Next year, Joe is looking forward to “sleeping a little bit more,” reading material that has piled up over the last two decades, and “working out during daylight hours for a change.”