Westridge’s Director of Lower & Middle School Zanita Kelly, Ed.D. has impressive educational leadership credentials and experience, matched only by her exuberance for independent school education and empowering girls. Her 25-year career spans teaching (elementary through graduate school), overseeing curriculum and instruction, and academic leadership for grades K-5, most recently as Upper (Elementary) School Head at Saint Mark’s School in Altadena. Her published work and academic presentations address such topics as global partnerships, multicultural classrooms, assessment practices, and the joy of social and emotional learning. Outside of school, she is the co-founder of Notes to Butterflies, a mental-health and wellness service organization for young women in underserved communities. She is also the mother of two daughters and a son, and a grandmother of three! 

Why did you become an educator?
I wanted to be a teacher because I believe education is the great equalizer. I’ve seen that in my own life. My mom was a first-generation college student and I watched her transform our lives through education and I knew that I wanted to help people understand its power. I want to lead in a way that helps students discover their talents and find their voice, and then create the world they deserve.

What brought you to Westridge?
What impressed me most about Westridge, even before I stepped foot on the campus, were the girls. I was introduced to them when they visited my former school to speak about Westridge to potential applicants. I appreciated their confidence, their authenticity, their ability to articulate their passion for their school, and how they are benefited by being in a single-gender education environment. They had a conviction that was unusual from young women their age.

This opportunity felt like the perfect intersection between my life’s passion—the education I do with girls (editor’s note: through her nonprofit organization Notes to Butterflies)—and my academic and professional training. I always wanted
to be a teacher but my passion for girls’ education evolved over time. I think girls are socialized to believe that to be a nice girl you must make yourself small and quiet. Westridge offers a counter-narrative to that. It supports girls in finding their voices and living lives of impact.

As I am reading and learning about the school, all of the values Westridge believes in…girls living lives of impact, respect, integrity, responsibility and inclusion, its motto “Surgere Tentamus” (We Strive to Rise)…I see these standards embedded across its 106-year history, and yet Westridge has continued to evolve. I think that is awesome and I want to be a part of it and am honored and excited to be here.

What did you learn about Westridge as you spent time at the school over the spring and summer?
I have learned that the girls who visited Saint Mark’s are not exceptions, they are the real deal! They represent who Westridge is—who all these girls are becoming. They are articulate and poised, they lead, they are smart, they are funny, and they are confident and bold. All the attributes that I read about from the outside in the vision and the mission and the values of the school, I am seeing embodied in the young women that I meet.

What are you most excited about in education today?
Social emotional learning (SEL). I wrote my dissertation on psychological safety in schools post-Columbine, and I learned that schools are better able to accomplish their education mission when they integrate social emotional learning along with academic competencies. This is something educators have known intuitively for a long time, but I am excited that science has caught up with that intuition so that we can prioritize the work and have more students and families understand that it’s not either/or (academics or SEL), it’s both/and.

What are you looking forward to in your first year at Westridge?
I am really looking forward to becoming an integral part of the Westridge community. I think the most important thing in the first year is building relationships with the girls, the faculty, and parents… to be available and to listen. I am excited about finding ways to bring my talents to the table to add value to the program.

Some final quick takes:

  • FAVORITE THINGS ABOUT SCHOOL GROWING UP: Literature and debate. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Nolan, used to tell us “raise your argument, not your voices.”
  • LEAST FAVORITE THINGS ABOUT SCHOOL GROWING UP: I disliked adults who assumed kids weren’t capable of grappling with sophisticated and abstract concepts. It taught me to treat children as fully formed humans with fewer experiences.

  • HERO: Oprah Winfrey is one of my heroes. I love that Oprah shares the mistakes and missteps that she has taken. With a lot of our heroes, we feel that they have always been perfect at life and so it is very difficult to
    think of yourself as having the power to be the heroine in your own story.

  • MOTTO: “Create the highest and grandest vision for yourself because you become what you believe!” I want girls to understand the concept of “not yet,” that we are constantly becoming better versions of ourselves. It relates to what I said about heroines.

  • OUTLETS FOR FUN: I adore the beach. All I need is a book and a blanket and I’m in heaven. I like live music (including karaoke) and dancing, and movies (Editor’s note: we understand Dr. Kelly has a savant-like ability to memorize lines from her favorites—test her on The Lion King).

  • BEST ADVICE EVER RECEIVED: “Stand in your truth” (be unapologetically you) and “don’t adapt to the energy in the room, influence the energy in the room” (be a thermostat not a thermometer.)

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