Why were you interested in bringing the Pollyanna Conference to Vermont Academy and being the first boarding school to host this conference?
As the new Head of School, I know I am the key figure in the diversity direction of the school, and must work together with all the other constituencies. I want our school to step into the shoes of its name –
Vermont Academy – and be representative of what Vermont values are and should be. I’d like us to be the site for conversations about topics such as race and privilege and show others that it is safe to have these discussions. We chose this particular conference title,
Race, Privilege and Community Building, because it provides a good baseline for the first conference for boarding schools in the Northeast. I’m hoping that we can do this every year and that this first conference is foundational.
Do you think that boarding schools will take away something different from the Pollyanna Conference than day schools do?
Because Vermont Academy is not the first boarding school in which I’ve worked, I know that boarding schools function like a village. We act in loco parentis to raise students with good values and character. We want and need to be centers of inclusivity; therefore, it is important we create a warm accepting environment for both the faculty and the student body through training and discussion. In addition, we have to find ways to bring parents into the conversation, because they are not present on a day-to-day basis as might be the case at a day school.
You’ve dedicated the conference to Michael Choukas Jr. Who is he and why is he being honored?
Michael Choukas Jr. ’46 was a driving force for diversity initiatives at Vermont Academy back in the mid-1960s when he was the head of school. He felt that diversity was good for everybody and that it was important to educate people away from ignorance. He brought the first black student to the school as part of the ABC (A Better Chance) Program in 1966. The program was designed to bring disadvantaged students (mostly, but not exclusively, students of color) to independent schools. Students were also brought to the school as part of the Jersey City project, which was highly controversial. He received death threats, but wasn’t frightened. He stuck it out.
At the reunion this past year I met many students who attended the school when Michael was head. They said their lives would have been very different if they hadn’t been at school with students of different races, ethnicities and genders. Because of these sentiments and Michael’s commitments to diversity, I have the courage to persist and I feel that it is important to our village. Having friendships with people not in any way like you is essential and you are not going the distance if the people you are surrounded by are the same as you…your life just isn’t as enriched.
You’ve attended the Pollyanna Conference at Dalton in the past. What was the big takeaway from the conference in your view?
In my opinion, the POD is the real takeaway. You need a group where there is honesty and people want to be productive. Student presence is key. It’s the students who need to be authorized to carry this work forward.
Also, the attending schools must trust each other so that we all benefit. While we might compete for students in admissions, the rest of the work we do should be collaborative. We have to learn to confide in each other and understand that we are all trying to do the same thing. I feel fortunate that the ISANNE (Independent Schools Association of Northern New England) heads are very close, so I am very excited about us coming together for our conference in April!