We are sad to share that our founder and first Head of School, Isabelle Schuessler, died on Wednesday, November 15, 2023. She was 89. Our hearts go out to her family, which includes four children, 11 grandchildren (four of whom attended WES), and four great-grandchildren. Her son Dave Schuessler remains our Facilities Manager, and his wife Petie has worked at WES since 1995 and is still a regular substitute teacher.
Mrs. Schuessler founded WES in 1986 after a 24-year career as an early childhood teacher, administrator, and Head of School at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Washington, D.C. It is hard to convey the dynamism and dedication she brought to creating WES — particularly its ethos and curriculum, designed to empower every student with confidence, kindness, and values.
Born Isabelle Sweeny on May 12, 1934, in Washington, D.C., she earned her B.A. in Elementary Education at George Washington University in 1962, and would later obtain a Masters in Teaching Foreign Languages in Elementary School at the University of Maryland. She started her teaching career at St. Patrick’s in 1962 with a Kindergarten class for two years and a Nursery class for two years. She was named Head of St. Patrick’s in 1966 and held this position for two decades. From 1976 to 1986 she served on the Governing Board of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES), including as NAES President from 1984-1986. At its 2000 Biennial Conference, NAES presented Mrs. Schuessler with the John D. Verdery Award, its highest honor.
In 1986, Mrs. Schuessler imagined a new, more dynamic school. Within just six months, she and a small group of committed parents established Washington Episcopal School. With inspired help from WES’s first Board Chair, Robert E. Freer, Dorothy McSweeny, and other founders, she opened WES with 90 students in the basement of Pilgrim Lutheran Church on Massachusetts Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland. Just one year later, Mrs. Schuessler oversaw the school’s relocation to its present site on Little Falls Parkway in Bethesda. Enrollment grew steadily and the school added a Middle School (Grades 7 and 8) in 1995.
Mrs. Schuessler was critical to beginning many of WES’s signature programs. She shepherded the unique WES study trip program, an integral part of the academic curriculum, guiding middle and high school students to explore Utah, Italy, France, and Spain. The annual 6th Grade Musical started in the first year (though performed by Grade 5, then WES’s oldest students) with HMS Pinafore, followed by The Sound of Music. She also completed the school’s first capital campaign in 1995, which led to a successful campus transformation. Mrs. Scheussler guided most of the architectural revisions, including reorienting the school to face the Capital Crescent Trail, the location of the library, and converting a warehouse into a new gymnasium.
Mrs. Schuessler retired as Head of School in 2001, succeeded by Stuart Work. Since then, she has remained involved with WES and its active association for former and retired faculty. As recently as June of 2023, Mrs. Schuessler was part of a group of former WES staff who had lunch with members of the WES Class of 2023, talking to them about the history of the school and their futures.
The young Ms. Sweeny met Donald Schuessler when he was a Marine, and they married in 1953. Mr. Schuessler was also trained as a teacher at the University of Maryland and went on to teach and coach football. Donald, who died in September 2022, was also a vital part of the WES community, along with the whole family.
WES honors Isabelle Schuessler every day — not just with remembrance but by embodying her legacy, principles, and aspirations. Foremost among these is the dedication to teaching children with kindness, joy, and purpose.
Mrs. Schuessler’s funeral was held on Saturday, November 25, 2023 at St. James Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland. You can view a live stream of her service here. We will continue to update this page with more information regarding a celebration of her life, to be held at Washington Episcopal School this spring 2024.
Donations in memory of Isabelle Schuessler can be made to the Isabelle S Schuessler Fund for Faculty Excellence.
In honor of Washington Episcopal School Founder Isabelle S. Schuessler, this fund was established upon her retirement in 2001. Its purpose is to provide dedicated financial resources, outside the school’s operating budget, to recognize and encourage excellence in teaching in all aspects of the school’s programs and activities. It supports continuing education for faculty, including graduate courses, professional development seminars, workshops and retreats, rewards for outstanding performance, and special projects.