What started for Robert McCollum as a two-year leave of absence from a teaching job in Chicago has expanded into a five-year stint guiding 300 students in a Christian school in Bogota, Colombia.
That enrollment was about a tenth of what McCollum was accustomed to in Chicago, but that wasn't the biggest difference.
McCollum, 44, said the work "really helped me to frame my own thinking about what Christian education should look like."
After serving as secondary principal and director of academics at El Camino Academy in Bogota, McCollum has returned to the U.S. to serve as the upper school principal for Annapolis Area Christian School.
He will replace Jane Brown, who is retiring at the end of the year, said school officials. Before teaching in Colombia, McCollum worked for a dozen years in Chicago-area public high schools. This is his first job at a religious school in the U.S.
"In public schools I've worked at, I was very trained and had lots of experience to develop leadership skills, and also really to hone my craft and understanding of what a curriculum should look like and instruction should be," said McCollum, a Chicago native. "Coming from Colombia, at a school that needed a lot of help in that area, I've been able to contribute pretty significantly."
His appointment comes more than a year after the school was embroiled in a controversy surrounding former Superintendent George J.W. Lawrence Jr., who was accused by three employees of improper conduct in a suit against the school's association. Lawrence resigned in the aftermath of that suit, and school officials say the case has since been dismissed.
Mike Edmonds, president of the Annapolis Area Christian School board of directors, said in a statement: "In February we received official notification from the court that all parties who had filed the lawsuit submitted for dismissal of the suit against us, and the lawsuit has been dismissed."
McCollum said he had read about the controversy before taking the position — and said it factored in his decision to accept the job.
"I know what I read from the news about what had happened," McCollum said. "But I was very impressed with the current superintendent, Rick Kempton; with the direction that he wanted to steer the school in, and with the passion of the board in terms of moving beyond the difficulties they have had in the last couple of years."
McCollum said he did a lot of online research on Annapolis Area Christian, then asked friends in the Christian community about the school. He said the feedback was favorable.
"When I was on campus for my interview process, I asked a lot of questions," McCollum said. "Not only was I looking at it as to whether or not I wanted to work there, but I was doing that as a parent. I asked questions like, 'How do you develop this idea?' or 'What happens here?' I wanted to make sure this was a school where I wanted my girls to go."
Kempton, who was hired to replace Lawrence in April last year, said that since he has arrived he hasn't had much conversation with the school community about the Lawrence controversy.
"People don't bring it up, and my focus has been taking steps forward," he said. "I know that there has been pain from the past, and I'm interested in healing and moving forward. We've been able to accomplish that."
Kempton said the upper school principal hire is the third major position to be filled at the school this year. AACC recently hired an advancement officer and is in its final stages of choosing a new athletic director.
"We feel like there is plenty of change, but it's going to strengthen us," Kempton said.
He said McCollum brings experience that will have an immediate impact.
The new principal agrees. He said his tenure in Colombia has shaped his focus on what's needed to make a Christian school thrive: the ability to help students analyze topics from a biblical point of view, external standards such as the common core and coherence from one grade level to the next.
"They're in pretty good shape in those areas," said McCollum.
He said he returns from the Bogota school — which was originally built for children of missionaries but now mostly enrolls Colombian-born children — with a broader world view that will help him as a principal here.
"It's really caused me to step back and ask myself about some of my beliefs and some of the things I've always held dear and ask, 'Do I hold this dear because it's really true, or because it's tradition or habit?'" he said.
"There's nothing like living in another culture to help you understand your own culture better."