State of the School Address, Reunion Weekend 2018

I have in my hands here the Strategic Plan for Vermont Academy under Larry Leavitt’s tenure in 1946. One of the opening pleas is that the school, designed for 120, was inadequate in its athletic facilities and that an endowment and financial aid were essential. Some things do not change! The author of this plan also stated that Vermont Academy did not seek to change its simplicity. It reads, "The school seeks suitable facilities to make more effective an educational program for complete development of the boys entrusted to its care.” All of these things are very interesting to me, along with the fact that our school was coed for almost sixty years before it became a single sex boys’ school in 1934 for another forty years or so. We have been coed overall for 102 of our 142 years! Yet so powerful was Larry Leavitt’s era that the idea of a boys’ school was a lasting perception. Sitting on the board, and certainly crafting part of this plan, was Frank Boyden, Head of Deerfield Academy. Frank, by the way, wanted nothing simple for Deerfield, and he was famous for raising the money for the Deerfield pool, walking around the audience at Amherst at a fundraising event for his alma mater. I wonder if Amherst made any money that night!

Why do I tell this story as a preamble for my State of the School address? I think—bold to say after only one year herethat Vermont Academy needs to sing its song, to boldly go past expectations of simplicity and provide the very best 21st century education for our students. Character and ethics lie at the heart of a Vermont Academy education, and certainly so too do values of humility, compassion, and support, but “Vermont Academy,” as the author of the 1946 plan claimed, “can be an even better school,” and if we are self-effacing and humble, we do not sing our song.

What is the recipe for such a thing to take place?

We need a gym, financial aid, and endowment! Well, kidding aside and acknowledging the truth of that, bricks and mortar are important, and so too is holding your head high. We need our alumni to help us to provide networks to obtain new and more students so that we can grow our student body. We need our alumni to tell our story and help us to sell the school. We need our alumni to send their sons and daughters to our school, building on a legacy of pride and sustained excellence. We need to sing the praises of life in gorgeous Vermont where an anxiety-free existence is still obtainable and the old values of sunshine and stars and clean air are our daily companions. Be proud of our school! Take the time to speak to a student or two while you are here. Our year started with so much energy and excitement. If you could have seen the faces of our students as they signed the honor code in formal dress at our evening convocation in the Nita Choukas Theater, you would be so very proud.

What are our students like? What is the essence of the Vermont Academy identity? One of the challenges of recent decades is that we have not packaged our identity for marketing purposes. If we dig back into our database, or even if you look at the Sabin Award winners, you will see that most of our graduates opened their own businesses. They did not flock to Wall Street or Fleet Street to work in finance. Some, of course, did, but generally, our student likes experiential learning, innovation, business, and running things on his or her own! We are independent, and what starts as tinkering and playing with ideas in high school is the catalyst for a growing adult who ultimately steers his or her own ship. I like this story. Do you?

This happens to be timely, since we live in a world where many of us will soon have to create the jobs we hold. Flexibility, resilience, creativity, and courage are the cornerstones of success in a complex postmodern world. We, at Vermont Academy, are equipped to teach students who learn in a variety of ways, and to give our students the skill toolbox to organize themselves and drive forward to reach their goals. When I meet our alumni, they say, “It all started at Vermont Academy. VA taught me how to lead my life, to be responsible, to organize and create reachable goals in an overall plan.” That might as well be the definition of our MAPS program—My Action Plan for Success!

What is new at Vermont Academy? Increased dedication to robotics and engineering, and a lab in the village for this work and for an afterschool program for middle students in these subjects. Partnerships with international schools that enable students to experience VA for short visits, trimesters, or to earn a joint degree between their school and VA. Online e-portfolios enable us to keep our students who study abroad connected to their Vermont Academy courses and classrooms. We are a school with a strong sense of place, of being Vermont’s Academy, and of all that this entails in terms of the arts, athletics, tinkering, scrappiness, and natural beauty and experiences in Vermont. We hope to develop our summer programming into a funnel for admissions but also into its own fourth semester, so that students can utilize apprenticeships during another semester with a capstone project and then use the summer to make up course work that could not be taken while getting work experience and writing a research paper. There is a lot going on, the energy is stirring, and Vermont Academy will advertise on the radio, in area newspapers, and streaming nationally and internationally. We will also use short video content and student ambassadors to help sell what we have here: the best educational product for our new era, one that combines liberal arts with modern skills to prepare students for college and for life.

Finally, I intend to be the “closer,” you know, the relief pitcher who comes in and gets the job done. I am going to dust off old and good plans and help to fundraise for the finishing of the Horowitz Performing Arts Hall, a new hockey rink (since we excel in winter sports), a new science and math academic building, a turf field, a crew boathouse, dorm modernizations, and increasing our endowment for faculty support and financial aid. That is the next campaign for Vermont Academy, and these buildings and spaces will allow us to reconfigure spaces in the existing gym, Shep, Fuller, and Alumni. I intend to stay here for the duration of my career, and the next campaign… Stay tuned. I have 15 years planned out with sprinklings of flexibility, creativity, and courage throughout! We will be Vermont’s Academy, where an unbiased institution teaches students how to debate and to resolve conflicts, to compromise and work for the greater good as well as for one’s own profit. Let no one ever make apologies for making money. Being a good citizen, after all, does not mean divesting yourself of personal livelihood and inner strength. I am proud of our students, our school, and our location in one of the greatest states in the U.S. We intend to be the Vermont school with a long reach, enabling our students to have work experience, global understandings, and organizational savvy (a great word meaning shrewdness and practical knowledge, the ability to make good judgments), so that they might create a life worth living and perhaps even make a mark in the fields of innovation, invention, and the arts.
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