If there was ever a defining moment of clarity for Kai Bynum about the value of an independent school education, it might be traced to a conversation with a teacher at his high school in Olympia, Washington. “I went to a public school where it was really hard to be an artist and an athlete and a scholar. I played three instruments (piano, coronet, violin) and four varsity sports (football, baseball, basketball, track and field). The director of music said I could either be in the band or play football, but I couldn’t do both. I had to choose. I ended up pulling away from music, and I really regret not continuing. I love music. I realized then, as a sophomore, I wanted to be part of a school that allowed kids to find a way to do as much as they wanted to do.”
Finding that school has taken Kai Bynum on a fascinating journey of personal and professional discovery, marked by extraordinary focus, drive and passion. He begins his story with the influence of his parents.
Kai was born in San Jose, California, and moved with his parents and older sister to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he lived from the ages of two to eleven. “My dad was a military guy, Navy, and then an information technical specialist. Mom was a prison warden.” Professional opportunities for both his parents took the Bynum family to the Olympia, Washington, area. “My dad took the position of Director of Security Technology for the State of Washington, overseeing issues like the Y2K project. My mother was appointed a warden at the local prison, and eventually the Director of Corrections in Snohomish County in Washington State.” He describes his parents as accommodating and deeply supportive. “They knew I was focused, so they gave me flexibility to find my way. I was really committed to books when I was young and I don’t think I missed a day of school growing up. I know I didn’t miss a day of high school. I always felt the day I missed would be the day that the information you didn’t know for the test was going to be explained in class. That’s where my head was!”
Flexibility became an important theme in Kai’s life. At the end of his sophomore year, he realized he could finish his high school graduation requirements within a year. “I was a year ahead in math and was taking AP courses. I was focused and driven and committed to asking questions. I felt I was ready for college.“ Kai was all set to receive his high school diploma at the end of his junior year when he got a call from a football recruiter at Stanford. The recruiter said he would have a better chance at a full scholarship if he played football his senior year. Kai stayed for the fall semester, taking one course at the high school and three at the local community college. By the end of the fall football season, he had a number of offers, including Stanford and his dream first choice—The University of Washington.
“It’s hard to explain one’s passion. It’s hard to explain why a school makes the hair on the back of your neck rise. But that was the University of Washington for me. It was the school that had everything that I wanted.” Washington also had flexibility, which Stanford did not. Being on a trimester system, the university allowed Kai to enroll that spring and play football. “I did return to my high school in June to receive my diploma, at Mom’s insistence.”
Kai enrolled as a History major and played two seasons of football as a Washington Husky. By the end of his sophomore year, a series of injuries sidelined him. “I had knee injuries and concussions. I could continue playing but I was at risk for injuries that I had already accumulated. The coaches left the decision up to me. I could continue to play or be hired as a coach.”
Kai spent the next two years coaching Husky linebackers and completing his degree requirements. From the University of Washington, he was recruited in 1999 by the University of Wyoming to coach and to do team scouting while starting graduate studies. And then the Denver Broncos called. “The Broncos asked me to work with team scouting, linebackers and special teams. It was an amazing experience. I loved the strategy of coaching. I was going back and forth between Laramie and Denver and doing graduate work. I was literally all over the place that year.”
Faced with an opportunity to make a full-time commitment to professional coaching, Kai took a reflective step back in the winter of 2000. “I was doing something I loved, no question. I was working hard. I was relatively successful given my age and where I was. But at the end of the day, what I was doing was just about winning a game. I wanted to have a deeper impact for others. I always knew I wanted to come back to education. Since my sophomore year in high school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher—to create that learning environment that allows kids to be what they want to be.”
Kai took a leap of faith and sought a teaching position. As a coach, he had recruited in New England and found himself drawn to that area of the country. New England also resonated with his deep affection for 19th-century American literature and his all-time favorite novel, Moby-Dick. An offer to teach high school English in New Bedford, Massachusetts, confirmed the decision. “The name New Bedford meant something to me—there is Frederick Douglass, and, of course, the whale! It was meaningful for me to start my academic education career there.”
In September 2001, Kai was at New Bedford High School teaching three sections of English—two Honors—with classes of 33 students, while also earning his teaching certificate. He continued researching ways to pursue his graduate studies when an opportunity to join the faculty of Governor Dummer Academy (now The Governor’s Academy) arrived. He moved to Newburyport in September 2003 to take up his position. He was also accepted into the master’s program at Harvard, where he earned an M.L.A. in English and American Literature and Language. “It worked out well because Governor’s was on a block schedule, so I was able to teach and go back and forth between Newburyport and Cambridge.” At Governor’s, Kai was fully immersed in the independent boarding school experience. He taught English and advised at all grade levels, coached football and track and field, served as a dorm parent in a girls dorm, and took on special administrative projects in curriculum and faculty development.
His time at Governor’s confirmed for him that his own high school yearning for a school where kids could be what they wanted to be was possible. “There is an overwhelming sense of community that an independent school creates. It’s an intimate setting where a community revolves around the process of learning. It’s a way of life.”
Within four years, Bynum was tapped to be part of the Senior Administrative team at Belmont Hill School, an independent day school for grades seven to twelve. As Director of Community and Diversity, he designed and led school-wide programs on issues of race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and faith, gender awareness, and cultural competencies, while still carrying a full load of teaching, advising and coaching. “Everything at Belmont Hill was heightened—the level of intellectual rigor, the athletics, the faculty. It was a space where you really had to be on your game. Belmont called forth my emergence as an administrator of schools.”
At the encouragement of Rick Melvoin, Belmont’s Head of School, Kai enrolled in the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College at Columbia University and received an M.Ed. with a focus on private school leadership.
Kai’s next port of call was Roxbury Latin, the nation’s oldest independent school. At Roxbury, Kai was Chief Academic Officer and Director of Strategic Initiatives. While The Governor’s Academy immersed him in the life of the independent school community and Belmont sharpened his focus, Roxbury brought it all together as an administrator, allowing him to interface and collaborate with every aspect of independent school life. To put a final exclamation point on his academic journey, Bynum earned a doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania while at Roxbury Latin.
The call to be Hopkins’ 109th Head of School came just one year ago, over the summer of 2015. There is no question in Kai’s mind that Hopkins is where he wants to be.
“There is no better vocation for me than to be in an environment that allows for the intellectual, the creative, the physical and the spiritual to all come together in one community.” Kai officially started on Friday, July 1, and spent the quiet summer weeks getting settled on campus, meeting with faculty, staff and members of the Hopkins community.
But it was later in August, during pre-season practice, that it began to feel as if he were really starting. Walking back from the playing fields where he stopped in to watch the football and field hockey teams get underway, he smiled broadly, “The kids are back—it’s fantastic.”
Kai Bynum's 19th Century Reading List:
Story by Linda Weber
This article was originally printed in the Fall 2016 issue of
Views from the Hill.