John Barnhardt, who stepped into his new role as president and chief executive officer of Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, on June 1, said he believes this new role is one to which he was “called.”

“From the moment I walked through the halls at Bishop McNamara, I knew right away that not only did it align with my spirit and my beliefs about what good education and good teaching looks like for young people, but it also worked for my family,” Barnhardt said in a recent interview with the Catholic Standard. “That is really what drew me in.”

Originally from the Midwest, in northern Wisconsin, Barnhardt joined the fire department for a couple of years following his graduation from the local public high school. While serving as a firefighter, he said “it was really the fire department, ironically, that showed me the power of education and encouraged me to go to college.”

Barnhardt spent his first year at college studying fire science administration before switching to a pre-law track with the intention of going to law school. But while he was a senior at the University of Wisconsin, Teach for America caught his eye and brought him to the Washington, D.C., area to teach after his college graduation.

For the past 12 years, Barnhardt has been working with KIPP DC, where he most recently served as Director of School Design. KIPP DC is a nonprofit network of public charter schools in the Washington area. When Barnhardt first began with KIPP, the network had three schools. This year, they will open their 19th school.

“It’s been a really wonderful organization to be a part of, but I’ve also really grown in my understanding and appreciation for education and pedagogy and what I believe is a great place for kids to learn and grow,” Barnhardt said.

Today, he lives in Greenbelt with his wife, Erica, and their three children. He received his master’s degree from American University and most recently in 2020 graduated with his doctorate in organizational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.

“My energy comes from working in schools,” Barnhardt said. “I think schools are a very unique workplace and a unique sector in that your job is to build knowledge and also really (build) connections for people.”

One aspect of Bishop McNamara that Barnhardt was particularly drawn to was the strong familial community. “The power of community exists within good schools,” he said.

“As a teacher you build that community in classrooms and as a principal, or in this case as a president, you build that within a school community and there are a few things that give me greater joy than that,” Barnhardt added.

And he sees his role as the president of Bishop McNamara High School as being “a model every day not only for our students but sometimes more importantly for our faculty and our families that brings a lot of life,” he said.

Barnhardt will be the fourth president and chief executive officer of the Forestville, Maryland high school and its goal to “educate both the heart and minds of children,” he said, is essential to his personal mission as an educator and a leader.

“While I may have used different words in the past, that has certainly been my belief as an educator all along,” Barnhardt said. “We’re shaping humans and children, and so the idea of teaching compassion, friendship and community… the idea of teaching the heart is so very important to me. And for me, that is what I lead with.”

As he prepares to enter the Bishop McNamara community with a vision for new school year in the fall, Barnhardt said he sees the future La Reine Science and Innovation Center as a great “hub within the county for great thinking and great learning.” 

“There is no greater indication of a need for STEM or a Science and Innovation Center than the current COVID crisis,” he said. 

The La Reine Science and Innovation Center, which is expected to open in June 2021, will bring together technology, collaboration and discovery through classes in science, technology, cybersecurity, engineering, entrepreneurship and multimedia on the campus of Bishop McNamara high school. In addition to expanding the school’s academic programming, the center plans to host events for the greater community, such as adults in Career Technology Education certificate programs.

“Our community and society needs great thinkers… healthcare professionals, technology experts coming into the world and hungry,” Barnhardt said. “I cannot see a more important role for Bishop McNamara to play especially for the county and the region.”

And as the global COVID-19 pandemic has significantly altered the way that schools, including Bishop McNamara, have functioned in recent months, Barnhardt said he is committed to ensuring that the McNamara “experience lives with the same valuation online that it is in person.” 

“Education as we understand it is going through an interesting shift, and I’m curious to see what happens when we do come back to school,” he said. 

Barnhardt added that he believes that the experience of distance learning is allowing the students to experience firsthand the value of being in another’s presence, as well as adapt to a deeper understanding of globalized learning. 

“We’re trying to figure out how we as academic professionals exist in this virtual world,” he said. “The great schools in our region will maintain their greatness or get better by finding a way to translate that experience into the new learning sphere.” 

In the Catholic identity of Bishop McNamara, which also reflects the diversity within the Forestville community, Barnhardt, who is Catholic, said he felt at home.

“It allows us to learn from one another and it shows that the strength in our community lies in that effective diversity," he said. 

Joining the Catholic school community, Barnhardt, said he has already been able to begin relationships with other high schools within the archdiocese and share about what is working and what is not.

“It’s so very clear that the network in the Washington region is strong and together we will emerge even stronger than before COVID and I’m excited to contribute anything I can to that,” he said.

Barnhardt succeeds Marco Clark, who served as Bishop McNamara High School's president and CEO for the past decade and who earlier served as principal of his alma mater. In June, Clark began serving as the executive director of the Holy Cross Institute at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. The institute is s responsible for strengthening and assuring the Holy Cross character and identity of the secondary schools and the colleges and universities sponsored by the Congregation of Holy Cross. The 17 schools sponsored by that congregation in the United States include Bishop McNamara and the University of Notre Dame.