Reunions Weekends Welcome

Good morning, everyone, and welcome back to Deerfield. I know you have been waiting quite some time for this weekend. For some of you, it’s been years since your last Reunion. For others, it may be your first time back as a class since graduating. Of course, the pandemic has delayed this moment for many of you as well.

But we are here, together, finally. I want to say how much I appreciate your patience and goodwill as we worked to bring all of you back to Deerfield.

We owe a special debt of gratitude to my colleagues who have worked incredibly hard to make this happen. So, hats off to those in Advancement who have been planning and coordinating every detail of this weekend for months and, in some cases, years. Our Physical Plant staff and Grounds Crews keep Deerfield looking so good. Our Dining Hall team who are feeding us so well this weekend. Our Communications and IT departments for keeping us connected. They have pulled out all the stops. And they’ve done it with characteristic good cheer, creativity, and enthusiasm.

On a personal note, I’ve been waiting eagerly to celebrate this milestone with you. You know something has gone off the rails when the Head of School has been on the job for three years and is only now enjoying his first Reunions Weekend.

I thought I’d share a brief update on Deerfield during the pandemic, where we’ve been, and where I hope we head together as a school. I’ll start with a story.

In the spring of 2020, I spoke to a student about the Introduction to Architecture class she was taking. They were studying the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral following the fire the year before and exploring some of the more creative designs proposed to replace its roof and spire. Our discussion that day reminded me of an article about the fire that I had recently read in the journal Science, describing the efforts to restore and rebuild Notre Dame.

One particular detail from that article resonated with me: “Following a protocol developed for just such a disaster,” the author wrote, “firefighters knew which works of art to rescue and in which order. They knew how to keep the water pressure low and to avoid spraying stained glass windows so the cold water wouldn’t shatter the hot glass.”

There is a lesson here: When the cathedral is on fire, you need to know exactly what you value. Unlike those Parisian firefighters, we had no plan. But we did—and we do—have historic and defining commitments. And we have clear institutional values.
As Covid began to burn its way through the world—and schools—we tried to remain true to our values, drawing on all of Deerfield’s extraordinary resources, the strength of our community, and commitments that I believe are unique in American education. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how important our communities are, how vital our connections are to one another, and how meaningful our accomplishments are when we achieve them together.

It has also taught us, particularly here at Deerfield, how important and powerful our common rituals are, whether it’s School Meeting, singing the “Evensong,” or gathering for artistic performances, athletic events, and Reunions. It’s easy to allow these kinds of traditions to lapse or fade. But they are more important now than ever before, and we need to be intentional in how we create, steward, and sustain them.

This was our thinking, our motivation, from the minute the pandemic struck. How do we bring our community back to campus as quickly and safely as possible? And how do we also create an authentic and meaningful experience for students? It was our intention to accomplish both: to address the challenges of the public health crisis and also create the kind of community and connection that supported young people’s well-being. The challenge was that these two goals were often in tension with one another.

In early March, I found myself in San Francisco at the end of a tour of American cities, meeting with Deerfield parents and alumni from throughout the country, and looking forward to a vacation in Colorado with our family. No sooner had I arrived in Colorado than I received a news update informing me that Amherst College had made the decision to send their students home – Amherst was one of the first colleges to do so.

I immediately returned to campus. We announced two weeks of online learning—that soon became the entire Spring Term—canceled our athletic and global travel, and began to plan for the coming year.

We were intent on opening but didn’t know how—and there were many weeks of uncertainty, doubt, confusion, and sleepless nights. We created a Covid Steering Committee, and I reorganized my senior leadership team to ensure effective decision-making. The Board began to meet more regularly. I spoke to school heads and college presidents throughout the country. We developed a number of important relationships—with an environmental engineering company in Boston, and with a biomedical testing company, also in Boston, Gingko Bioworks. We connected with a high-level medical consulting group out of John Hopkins University to help us understand and sort through emerging, complex, and often contradictory medical and epidemiological research.

Eventually, a plan fell into place. We would open as scheduled and screen, test, and quarantine our way through the pandemic. In June, we communicated that to our community – and I have to say that the work of our Communications Office was incredibly well-done.

And we spent the summer executing that plan:

We made significant changes to the physical campus. We added 80 rooms in order to shift to an all-single model. We built a second dining pavilion so we could continue with modified sit-down meals—at a distance and eating in two shifts. We rented the Annex to the Deerfield Inn for quarantine space. It had long been planned to take down Dewey House—once the Health Center—to make room for the new dorm; we paused that and instead refitted Dewey into a second Covid-specific health center for testing and quarantine. We audited our ventilation throughout the school and enhanced it whenever needed. We de-densified campus by asking employees who were not student-facing to work remotely. We built testing protocols—ours was an easily administered saliva test rather than a swab. We tested twice weekly, and over the course of the year, we did over 50,000 tests.

In November, to prepare for the winter, when we knew positive cases would rise, we requisitioned three buildings—Hitchcock, Ephraim Williams, John Williams—and moved our day students to campus. We gave a great deal of thought to the student experience. In the absence of interscholastic competition in the fall of 2020, Bob Howe, our Athletic Director, built a Green and White intramural program.

We built an outdoor skating rink. Eventually, we built outdoor volleyball courts—all of this to keep students safe and outside and provide as much fun as possible. We were lucky to have the new Chen Health Center and the new Athletic Center. We moved School Meeting to the turf field, built a stage for announcements, and gave students camp chairs to sit in. We brought in food trucks. We purchased hundreds of Adirondack chairs and built fire pits. Advisor meetings became advisor walks—something we continue today.

When it became clear that the public school would begin remotely, we created an on-campus middle school for the children of faculty and staff in the new volleyball court so that they had the support of their own families and could teach and advise.

We invested heavily in professional learning for our faculty, first to facilitate the transition to online learning in the spring of 2020 and then again to support the effective implementation of a new schedule, working closely with the Global Online Academy.
To reduce the potential number of close contacts, reduce pressure on quarantine space, and ensure continuity of learning, we opened in the fall with a new and radically different academic schedule that called for even smaller classes with fewer students and longer periods. Students took two full-year courses each term, with each class meeting each day for two hours, one period in the morning and one in the afternoon.

This allowed us to manage positive cases when they happened in a way that didn’t force us to go online or to shut down the school. That was always our goal: not to eliminate positive cases but to manage them well and safely when they arose and to allow students to continue learning.

The new schedule was a key to our successful year, and it also created the opportunity to rethink how we use time and shape the daily and weekly schedule. The result was that this year we adopted a tighter and more streamlined schedule– our third schedule in my three years—and it has been essential in addressing longstanding issues of pace, stress, and the institutional management of homework. Instead of five to six classes per day, students now have two to three: we have three classes a day, each 90 minutes long, with ample community time where students can manage their time. It has had a very positive impact on the student experience, on the pace of life, and it has been received exceptionally well by students.

All of the changes and adjustments we made over the course of the last two years were expensive. The Board of Trustees allocated an additional $3 million for Financial Aid. There was also $7 million for various Covid accommodations, including testing. All told, we spent approximately $12.5 million in accommodations to support the learning, health and well-being, and the flourishing of our students.

That is a significant number. Every dollar was worth it, and none of our efforts could have happened without the generosity of this community, as well as years of leadership and planning by those who preceded us, especially at the Board level. Over years of planning and forethought, the Board has built a financial model that was ready for just such a moment, and that was flexible and resilient.

As alumni, you showed up time and again, offering well wishes to our students, providing philanthropic support, volunteering, and sharing with me and my team your feedback and good ideas.

Deerfield is fortunate to have great governance and a great community, and that means everything when you encounter the kinds of crises we experienced. We have returned to school life as we—and as you—knew it.

I’ve often been asked what have been the great lessons of the last two-plus years, and I thought I would offer a few reflections. The first lesson I learned, or maybe it’s something I knew and was confirmed for me, is the importance of mission. Our mission, put plainly, was two-fold: to both navigate the public health crisis, keep our community safe, and also deliver on an experience for students that was authentic, in-person, and in keeping with the historic commitments of Deerfield as a residential school that values connection, proximity, community, and face-to-face interactions.

The past two plus years have confirmed for me the power of a residential school and community committed to the kind of culture that has long defined Deerfield. My team and I kept coming back to that sense of mission. It grounded and centered us during moments of great uncertainty and allowed us to keep what I would call “the Covid off-ramp” in view. As public health conditions changed—as vaccines became widely available, treatments improved, and our community built collective immunity—so too did our approach. Whenever possible, we safely sought to eliminate unnecessary protective measures. We resumed full athletics in late winter of 2021. We invited parents and families back to campus that spring. We dispensed with weekly testing this school year and unmasked indoors, resuming School Meetings, regular sit-downs, and all other school activities and rituals.
Another lesson was simply the power of teamwork, of working together in support of kids. The teamwork, collaboration, and sacrifice that has seen Deerfield through this crisis encompass not only those on campus but our alumni and parent bodies have been extraordinary.

As I said, there was a tremendous show of support, from generous gifts—Deerfield had a record year in fundraising during the pandemic—to alumni reaching out with thoughts and words of encouragement. The Deerfield community came together in ways that were historic and remarkable and very inspiring.

Throughout this time, we have continued to think about and plan for the future, particularly in terms of our academic program and our efforts in inclusion and community life. In remarks I made earlier this year to our families, I outlined two great goals for Deerfield as we plan for the future and explore the kind of community we want to create and sustain.

The first goal was the intentional creation of a learning culture that honors the disparate beliefs of a diverse student body drawn from across the United States and around the globe and a culture that embraces a commitment to inquiry and independent, critical thinking. At Deerfield, we promote intellectual risk-taking, question-asking, and curiosity. These are defining features of our classrooms and school. To that end, we embrace the Liberal Arts as a source of lasting wisdom and perspective and the best possible preparation not simply for college but for lifelong learning. We teach and model norms of civility. We encourage students to assume good faith and good intentions on the part of peers and cultivate a spirit of generosity, empathy, and imagination in them. We embrace ideas of viewpoint diversity and argument-inclusiveness in teaching, curriculum, and how we shape our special programs.

This spring, we had a visit at School Meeting from documentary film-maker Ken Burns and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. We held our inaugural Deerfield Forum in April, which featured the journalist Jonathan Rauch, New Yorker writer and Deerfield graduate Jiayang Fan ’02, and former President of the University of Richmond Dr. Ronald Crutcher, where we explored issues of speech, inquiry, and civil discourse. The Forum, brilliantly moderated by Trustee Libby Leist, was intended to promote viewpoint diversity on campus, model constructive and searching civic engagement, and stage for students’ conversation among educators, journalists and scholars, and civic leaders. That’s just what it did. I was proud, not simply of the level of engagement, but of the high quality of the questions our students asked. I believe that the best schools of the future will embrace and affirm these practices in pursuit of intellectually-inclusive classrooms, student voices, and student flourishing.
The second value I outlined to parents was this: To sustain a climate and culture at the Academy where all Deerfield students can thrive and flourish in a community of respect and reciprocal care. And that—more than anything—has been our goal throughout the pandemic.

It’s been reflected in our commitment to in-person learning and the fact that we’ve been able to have students on campus throughout the past two years and that we’ve provided them, I believe, with an experience that’s authentic, including the opportunity to connect with others under the most extraordinary circumstances.

In spite of the challenges the pandemic presented, the spirit on campus has been uplifting and joyful and always led by our students. It wasn’t always easy for them, but I believe they will look back on these years with a feeling of accomplishment and pride.

The art of creating a powerful sense of community that recognizes and honors each student’s individuality and imparts to them a full and equal sense of belonging is the foundation of Deerfield’s work as a school. And it’s a collective undertaking that each and every member of the community embraces.

Fundamentally, this is about the kinds of relationships we create between adults and students and the kinds of relationships students forge with one another across the divides that sometimes separate us: in our dorms, on our playing fields, in the classroom, and across every dimension of school life. It’s about the quality of our advising, our mentoring, our coaching, and our teaching. And it’s about the quality of the relationships we create each day with students in all our interactions with them. Deerfield’s faculty—the heart and soul of our school—has long recognized that learning is social, relational, and holistic.
Building relationships of trust, support, and challenge with young people is the essence of what we do as teachers, coaches, and advisors. That goal is reflected in our 2020 Action Plan for Inclusion, where we outline important priorities in the areas of teaching and learning; culture and climate, faculty recruitment, community engagement, and educational access. It’s reflected in our core values; our commitment to a school size of roughly 650 students, where every student is known and seen, and to a friendly, heads-up culture that is free—as much as possible—from the distractions of our phones.

That is a quality that John McPhee identified in his portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Boyden when he wrote about the “invisible essence” of Deerfield. The fact that we were on campus during the pandemic with every member of the faculty teaching and advising in person with minimal disruption to our traditional school calendar reflects Deerfield’s historic commitment to that invisible essence and to forging powerful relationships with students and adults.

A great secondary education is not simply preparation for college: It is an end in itself. As a longtime educator, I’ve believed that the years of high school in a residential community such as Deerfield are precious, defining, and transformative.

I’ve heard this from many alumni. You have told me that the years you spent here—whether it was four or one—defined your lives and your futures. Your Deerfield days relationships have been more important to you than many others. A few weeks ago, at Commencement, we celebrated the class of 2022 as they transitioned from students to Deerfield alumni. It was a wonderful day that capped a terrific year on campus.

All year, the morale was high, and the energy was positive, both among faculty and students. We enjoyed a historic year in admissions with over 2,400 applications and another excellent year in college and university admissions, even as that landscape evolves and becomes more and more competitive and complex.

Philanthropic support for the school remains robust. And despite the enormous challenges of the last two years, we continue to plan intentionally for the future.

Our student-athletes took to the fields, courts, pool, and river with enthusiasm and tremendous school spirit. We saw extraordinary athletic performances, and our student-artists moved and entertained us with their creativity, passion, and imagination. This was really important for us. Athletics and arts remain critically important to our mission and to our students’ experience—one of the last arenas where students can struggle with discomfort, challenge themselves, meet with defeat and triumph, and emerge with a more robust sense of self and confidence.

We resumed student travel, including trips to the American South, Washington D.C., Jordan, and the Dominican Republic, among other destinations. We began construction on Simmons Dorm, which is rising as we speak.

We’ve also been moving forward on a number of on-campus initiatives, including our newly-developed Vision of a Deerfield Student. In that we describe our ideal Deerfield student-citizen, we outline the competencies and mindsets we value in the classroom, in community life, in athletics, in the arts, and in the broad areas of Leadership and Judgment, Open-Mindedness and Curiosity, Mastery and Reflection, and Scholarship and Academic Excellence.

Focusing on these areas will enable us to become more intentional about what we teach and why. It will allow us to shape conversations about the intellectual, ethical, and leadership mindsets we value and aim to instill in students, with the broader goal of inspiring them to become lifelong learners. This Vision will inform how we think about teaching and learning, how we review and study our own curriculum and pedagogical practices, and how we think about our own growth as teachers.

We’re thinking deeply and intentionally about students flourishing holistically across every dimension of school life. The pandemic has brought into greater focus the public health challenges around wellness. We need to ensure that our academic program promotes not only high achievement but also intellectual vitality, deep learning, and joy. We need to continue to create opportunities for inclusion, community, and connectedness—to promote what the literature calls “pro-social behavior.”

The learning loss of the pandemic is well-known. Less well-known is the loss of certain kinds of social and interpersonal skills. We have been able to protect public health on campus, also support student well-being, and create for them an experience that is in keeping with our commitment to community and connection.

Having spoken at length with colleagues across the country, most recently at the annual spring meeting of the Eight Schools Association, I believe that Deerfield has emerged from the last two years in a unique position of strength.

We hope to build upon this strength as we shape our emerging vision for the future of the Academy—one committed to a powerful and defining sense of community, tradition, and inclusion. We are poised for the Academy’s next campaign, approved by the Board at our spring meeting, and I look forward to sharing our best thinking to date in terms of future priorities and soliciting your feedback and thoughts.

Thank you so much, everyone, for all that you do for Deerfield. Enjoy the rest of the day and weekend.