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After School: Growing Up in the Business Office

By Net Assets posted 08-10-2020 11:01 AM


Leadership |

This business officer never expected she would follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Article by Alexandra Penry, Headwaters School

From the July/August 2020 Net Assets magazine

Feature image: Alexandra Perry with her mother, retired business officer Cindy Pagels.
Alexandra Perry,
Senior Director for Advancement and Strategy, Headwaters School

I have been acquainted with the independent school business office for as long as I can remember. When I was a baby, I spent my days in a playpen in the business office at La Lumiere School, a midwestern boarding school where my mom, Cindy Pagels, served as director of finance. When I got a little older, I spent my summers romping through the 180-acre woods surrounding that same office. Later, I attended La Lumiere myself, and even later I worked there as director of admissions. I guess you could say that independent schools are in my blood.

Going to school where your mom is known as “Money Bags” is a pretty cool thing. I had mostly unlimited access to pop tart money, and I never had to wait for a ride home. But looking back, the thing I appreciate most is how disciplined my mom was at separating her roles as parent and colleague. I was a little bit sassy and not a fan of the dress code, and I know she heard complaints about my behavior more than once. But she found a way to maintain boundaries. “Would you normally call home about this?” she would ask a colleague rhetorically. “Then please leave my office.” Maybe she was a little bit sassy too.

Going to school where your mom is known as “Money Bags” is a pretty cool thing. 

Later, when I was studying business management and working towards my MBA, my mom was my go-to tutor for my accounting classes. She was appalled that they did not teach — and subsequently that I did not understand — the concept of debits and credits. She patiently explained it to me more than once, and I started to wish that the university would teach me as well as she did. I know that I only passed those classes because she helped me make sense of the material.

A few years later, a position in the admissions office at my alma mater opened up. If I thought going to school with my mom was pretty great, I was downright thrilled to work with her. I got a morning hug every day, family lunch a couple times a week, and occasionally even some pop tart money. And professionally, I learned everything I know about financial aid and how to work with families whose payments are past due. I’ve expanded on that knowledge throughout my career, helping shape equitable policies and increase access at two other independent schools.

 In early days at Headwaters, I would regularly raise my hand in meetings to say, “You know I’m not an accountant, right?”

Last spring, I received a phone call from Ted Graf, head of school at Headwaters School in Austin, Texas. He was looking for someone to help wrangle their data, and as a self-proclaimed “spreadsheet nerd,” I was all in. Somehow, with a background in enrollment, development and marketing, I found myself in charge of the business office. In early days at Headwaters, I would regularly raise my hand in meetings to say, “You know I’m not an accountant, right?”

Over my first six months, I spent almost every car ride home on the phone with my mom. I had questions that ranged from, “How do I put together a capital budget?” to “What the heck is a swap?” (I’m still not sure; I just know I don’t want one). Thank goodness she is now retired and is available to “consult.”

I honestly never imagined taking a position as a business officer, but I have to say that I love it. I love helping make all the pieces fit, seeing the bigger picture and planning for the future. I’ve found myself to be more fulfilled professionally than I ever could have thought, and I think it is almost entirely because I’ve seen excellence in this field modeled for me my whole life. I’m so lucky to have been raised by this role model, and to still have her to lean on whenever I need it — from long-range financial modeling to those pesky debits and credits.

Alexandra Penry is senior director for advancement and strategy at Headwaters School, a preschool–grade 12 school with 525 students in Austin, Texas.
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We’d love to hear from you! In After School, business officers share a passion or perspective from outside their usual working hours. Want to contribute? Email In the subject line, type AFTER SCHOOL.


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