By Janis Fontaine
When students return to Unity School in Delray Beach this month, they’ll find a new smile greeting them in the carpool line. It belongs to their new head of school, Genevieve Hoppe.
“I do carpool every morning,” Hoppe said. “The kids deserve to have someone greet them with a smile.”
Hoppe (pronounced HOP-pea) believes a good attitude is half the battle and starting the day with a positive mindset sets the tone for the rest of the day.
Hoppe, soon to turn 40, was hired from North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, where she was assistant head of school.
Hoppe says she has already fallen in love with Unity School’s tranquil campus — five buildings situated on 7 acres with its own Lake Eden just 2.5 miles from the Atlantic Ocean — and now she’s falling in love with the city.
She and her husband, Cole, the athletic director at St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Oakland Park, own a house in Deerfield Beach. Now she and Cole will be exploring Delray in search of a pocket of paradise of their own.
Hoppe was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. She went to the same private school from second through 12th grades, so she understands the closed campus atmosphere where you go to classes with the same kids your whole school life.
Her school was larger though, with 150 in her graduating class, whereas Unity serves a maximum of about 300 students from its Montessori preschool through eighth grade.
Hoppe inherited a passion for the Spanish language and Latin culture from her father, who had gone to medical school in Mexico. She majored in Spanish in college and studied abroad twice, in Valencia, Spain, and San Jose, Costa Rica.
“I fell in love with the rich traditions,” Hoppe said, but she never imagined she’d be immersed in such a diversity of Spanish culture every day like she is in South Florida.
Hoppe also didn’t plan to become a teacher. “Permanent student” would be her dream job, she joked, but her love of learning is something she wants to pass on to others. She earned her master’s degree in modern languages from the University of Memphis and is working on her doctorate in education leadership and administration at Florida State University.
Of her new role, Hoppe says, “I think the head of school has to have a strategic vision and they have to communicate it to their team. Then, they have to empower people to implement it.”
She says she doesn’t plan any major changes at Unity. Founded in 1964, the school is a sister organization to Unity of Delray Beach church.
Schoolwide, the day begins with a peace bell that tells students and teachers it’s time for a mindfulness exercise. Hoppe says it helps calm the kids before they start their day of learning.
“Peace education” is a core concept at Unity. It’s part of Unity’s “Lessons in Living” curriculum that teaches life strategies for a better world. These are things as basic as knowing right from wrong, following the Golden Rule and understanding that kindness matters, but as complex as how to settle our differences nonviolently and loving your enemy as yourself.
First, Hoppe says, children learn to be at peace with themselves. This happens in part through feeling accepted at school, whether you’re an athlete or an artist, a math whiz or a budding violin virtuoso.
Next, children learn to create and nurture peace within their community (for example, fifth-graders help younger kids with conflict resolution) and, finally, they consider peace in the world.
“We are educating good citizens,” Hoppe said.
The holistic approach to education and to nurturing each child’s gifts and talents are the lifeblood of schools like Unity. As the South Florida population grows, the demand for a learning environment where a child is an individual, known to faculty and staff, is growing as well.
Advantages of a school like Unity, Hoppe says, are that each child gets a personal learning plan. No child falls through the cracks, which is one of the problems with a large campus.
“We’re able to keep close eyes on them,” Hoppe said. “We really get to know each student, who they are and what they care about.”
The coronavirus pandemic dramatically affected education.
“I think it changed school for the better,” Hoppe said. “It showed us what is really important. We need to have everyone on the same team pursuing the same goal. That’s the heart of what a school should be.”
When it’s time to recharge her batteries, Hoppe says that she’s an extrovert who finds renewed energy through introverted activities like cooking a meal, walking on the beach and playing with her French bulldog.
“Everyday things bring me comfort,” she said.
Hoppe has a very simple personal motto as well: “Work hard, love kids.”