By Megan Tady
Photographs by Joanna Chattman
Think back . . . maybe you remember yourself as a shy freshman, dipping an apprehensive toe on the Deerfield campus . . . unfamiliar with new school lingo and uncertain of decades-old tradition. You were utterly far from home—whether it was in the next county or the next country—and Deerfield had yet to feel like it. At your old school, you were a big fish, a star, the best athlete, the smartest. But at Deerfield everyone seemed bigger, brighter, better. Who were you at Deerfield Academy? Who did you emerge as after graduation?
Or imagine you’re an apprehensive parent dipping a shy toe on campus, unfamiliar with your role at a boarding school. You’re on the precipice of leaving your child far from home. Did you pack the right clothes? Will your child fit in at Deerfield? Will you? And then come the first few weeks with a quieter house and a handful of homesick phone calls. Who will your child become at Deerfield? Did you make the right decision?
Eventually, adults settle into parenting alongside a boarding school, and students ease into daily life. Nevertheless, Deerfield is keenly aware of the ups and downs accompanying this transition and lifestyle and wants to ensure that parents and students don’t have to navigate it alone. And so, two new initiatives were introduced this year: The first is Connect4, a residential life program that was developed in recognition of the fact that the world runs at a quicker pace these days, and technology has made dorm life radically different from what it was even a decade ago. Connect4 places a high value on the time students spend in their dorms, and a high value on Deerfield’s role in using that time to shape student experiences and ultimately, their values. Simply put, Connect4’s goal is to foster strength of character.
In some ways, the Deerfield Parents Network (DPN) is the adult version of Connect4. At its most basic level the DPN strives to build partnerships among Deerfield parents, but much like Connect4, the DPN’s ultimate mission is to foster a consistent understanding of Deerfield’s mission, values, and social and ethical expectations across the parent body.
Both programs have striking parallels, offering students and parents an opportunity to learn from each other and take an active role in shaping the culture of the school. The ultimate goal: To ensure that the Academy’s core values—respect, honesty, hard work, humility, and a commitment to service—are directly woven into the Deerfield experience, thus shaping students who are ready and willing to do good in the world—not just to do well.
“Attending Deerfield is not only for self advancement,” Head of School Margarita Curtis says. “You will be expected to have a positive impact on the lives you touch. If you don’t start thinking about others while you are here, then chances are you won’t develop the habit of looking outward later in life.”
Beyond the Books
On a rainy autumn evening in October, the freshman and sophomore girls of Scaife Dormitory gather in their common room for their second Connect4 session. Dressed in pajamas, drinking glasses of milk, and munching on animal crackers and pretzels, the girls are comfortable and “at home.” There is a buzz in the air, and not because study hall hour is over—it is rumored there will be skits. Senior proctors Malou Flato and Louisa Schieffelin, accompanied by faculty Residential Head Becca Melvoin, kick off the group discussion by asking every student to share a high and low point from the last few weeks. And then, the role playing begins. Malou and Ms. Melvoin act as two students gossiping about another student down the hall, who overhears their hurtful conversation. “And cut!” Malou says, with a director’s flair. “What was wrong with that, and how could we have handled it differently?” Hands shoot up around the room. This is Connect4 in action.
Talking about a strong moral compass is a lot different from actually having one, which is why Deerfield created a program to deliberately help students live their values. On the surface the dorm activities might appear to be “just” fun and games, but the discussions and activities actually help to cultivate self-awareness, collaboration, and empathy—critical skills in the fast-paced, global culture Deerfield students are faced with every day. Connect4 also helps students cope with the challenges of high school; led by senior proctors, Connect4 provides a venue for both the philosophical and the temporal, such as expressing shared values among the student body, or simply answering questions for those shy underclassmen. Just as students hone their math and writing skills in the classroom, the Connect4 program helps students hone their core values, ethics, and beliefs in the dorm room.
“It can be something as innocuous as a student dropping a candy bar wrapper on the grass, or something as serious as another student harassing somebody,” Residential Head Mike Schloat said. “The students have a choice between just accepting that that’s ‘the way it is,’ or actively taking control of the culture that they’re a part of. Connect4 equips our kids with tools for responding to those difficult moments.”
Assistant Dean of Students Amie Creagh, who developed the program, adds that Connect4 prompts kids to reflect on and practice ethical behavior in a thoughtful way.
“To me, character education is doing your ‘should,’ and that you have a sense of what your ‘should’ is in any given circumstance, and then actually follow through,” Creagh said. “But unless you’ve practiced it, it’s difficult to do. Connect4 is being proactive about how to practice your ‘should’ with any number of high school experiences.”
Connect4 features themes that guide its programming; this year ninth and tenth graders are focusing on “connection.” As the program expands next year to encompass upperclassmen, the themes will also expand to include “identity,” “leadership,” and “legacy.” The themes are geared toward students’ developmental progress and class level/year. For instance, with freshmen and sophomores Connect4 develops students’ sense of self and sense of place; in a student’s junior and senior years, Connect4 hones leadership skills.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I’m a senior, I’m a leader,’” Creagh explained. “But then students need to know what that means and how to practice it. It’s about how they want to be remembered.”
One tenet central to each theme is the idea of foresight—allowing kids to have some breathing room in their busy schedules to think about who they are as people. “We don’t often have the opportunity to look ahead,” Creagh said. “When we look ahead, we think, ‘College.’ We want kids to look ahead and think, ‘What am I going to do in these four years at Deerfield? What is going to be important?’”
Even a decade ago, parents’ roles at Deerfield were more reserved. But with changing technology, instant communication, and high expectations for top prep schools, parents have become a bit more . . . ahem . . . hovering. But rather than dismiss parents, Deerfield has sought to partner with them. With input and leadership from faculty and parents, the Deerfield Parents Network (DPN) blossomed this fall as a venue for parents to connect, address school values, create a unified front around issues such as off-campus drinking, and offer advice and wisdom to incoming families.
In September the DPN published its first newsletter, The Link, full of tips and guidance for parents from parents, including “A Primer for Parents: Ten Things We Wish We Knew After Drop-off Day.” To further help parents connect with each other, the DPN also created the “First Link” program.
Just as Deerfield’s longtime Green Key program matches older students with new students on the first day of school, First Link does the same with new parents and established parents. One on one and person to person, First Link helps to answer those nagging questions that might seem silly but lead to worry nevertheless: No, not everyone is wearing designer clothes, and yes, students will have help moving in—so there’s no need to bring hired movers.
“When your child is accepted at Deerfield, it’s very comforting to get a phone call [from another parent] and hear, ‘We’re so glad you’re coming and do you have any questions?’” said parent Katy Flato, who edits The Link newsletter.
Overall, the DPN’s most important function is to help impart the values of the school to incoming families and to offer advice that establishes a sense of equality among all students. “This advice might include not bringing in designer furniture to your child’s dorm, or talking about what it means to serve kids alcohol, or not having extravagant meals at the Deerfield Inn,” Dean of Students Toby Emerson commented.
Four-time Deerfield parent Linda Whitton is passionate about the impact the DPN can have on creating a more inclusive Deerfield community and building bridges between families from diverse backgrounds.
“We need to make sure that if you’re a family that grew up in a boarding school environment and this is all very comfortable for you, you’re also aware that that’s not the case for everyone at Deerfield,” Whitton said. “We need to make sure that we’re all welcoming and inclusive because that’s the kind of behavior we want to model for our children, and it’s also the right thing to do for the families at Deerfield.”
“Most parents love Deerfield,” Whitton continued. “In the past there haven’t been a lot of ways for parents to give back to Deerfield and really get involved . . . the DPN is a chance for them, no matter what their background, no matter where they come from, to help shape the best Deerfield and to shape the best experience for their children.”
A Unique Bond
Tradition runs deep at Deerfield, from sit-down meals to spirited weekly School Meetings. Connect4 is capitalizing on that sense of tradition and helping students interact more deliberately as they keep the green pride alive. “Connect4 brings people together in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily do on their own,” senior proctor Ryan Heffernan said.
Deerfield is fortunate to have students from 31 countries and 39 states this year, and this provides an opportunity for students to learn from people who are radically different from themselves. But simply throwing everyone together and hoping kids will mingle doesn’t necessarily work. “We don’t think we can capitalize on the composition of our student body unless our kids are truly interacting with one another and engaging with one another,” Dr. Curtis observes. “So we provide them with the tools to do so . . .”
This past fall, as a sort of prelude to Connect4, the freshman class spent 36 hours in the woods of the Berkshires together before they even set foot in a classroom. Donning identical bright green T-shirts, they swung through a ropes course at Camp Becket and cheered each other on. It was Connect4’s way of breaking the ice. Freshman Signe Ahl said the trip built a unique bond among the class. “I definitely wouldn’t have become so close to my classmates so quickly without it,” she said.
“It leveled the playing field so that every kid felt like they fit in, every kid felt like they had a place, and there was no hierarchy yet,” Schloat said. “I think that has led to an engaged, confident, and more thoughtful freshman class that is now tackling bigger issues.”
More importantly, however, Connect4 offers a chance to improve the culture of the school and to strike a balance between strength of mind and strength of heart.
“The truth is that it takes a lot of effort and practice to behave honorably all of the time, but it is practice that develops good habits, and good habits that build strong character,” Dr. Curtis recently observed. “At Deerfield, we are building habits for a lifetime.” ••
Megan Tady is a freelance writer and journalist based in Easthampton, MA. Her husband, Alex Bartlett ’90, regales her with tales of his Deerfield experience, so now she’s excited to have one of her own after writing this story.