Williston Northampton Today

Presented by Head of School Robert W. Hill III in the Williston Theatre on June 9, 2012 during Reunion.

Before I begin, I’d like to give a warm welcome to all alumni: NSFG alumni, Williston alumni, and of course, Williston Northampton School alumni.  As I was considering remarks for today, I was thinking about how schools change, but also how they stay the same.  Emblematic of this duality is the ceremony that we will hold later this afternoon; the dedication of the newly installed Angelus on the terrace behind 194 Main Street.

The Angelus was the bell which called NSFG students to a moment of daily reflection, a practice that we have memorialized and adapted to Williston Northampton’s convocation and commencement exercises. I invite all of you who are interested in this NSFG symbol to come to the dedication at 4 pm.

Being head of school in the 21st century presents some unique challenges relative to other distinct periods of recent history. While we can look to the past for direction, it also appears that we are in a period of flux every bit as dramatic as that of the late 1960s and early 1970s when we experienced landscape-shifting changes. It is not a surprise to me, looking back as a quasi-historian, that coeducation for schools and colleges took hold during the social upheavals of the Vietnam era.

I admit that I am a lifelong learner and I turned to one of our most distinguished alumni for some guidance. The former chief scientist of Xerox and author of a recent book,  A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, John Seely Brown ‘58 has been writing a lot and speaking even more about the shifting forces at work in the world of education. So I thought going to see him would be a “Yoda moment”—like going to the oracle to find the one answer. But then I learned that JSB, as he is known, refers to himself on his web site as the “Chief of Confusion.”

Titles of books on my desk in Ward Schoolhouse don’t offer ready solutions either: Disrupting Class or Weapons of Mass Instruction, to name just a couple of them.

So Williston Northampton School today has changed, as all schools—boarding schools in particular—have changed over the decade.  Beyond the obvious move to coeducation in 1972, we have become a more diverse campus in every sense. This year, we had students on campus from 22 states and 24 countries.

We are schools of the world. I imagine that in decades past there would have only been a handful of countries on the global list.  These students bring so much to the student experience and community, but they also require support not needed previously.

I was having a conversation at lunch yesterday with Chuck Vernon and others about the changes that I’ve seen in boarding schools during my tenure, and even a quick summary shows how remarkable and profound those changes have been in terms of structure and services alone: counseling and health services, athletic trainers and facilities, admissions and advancement office staffs, technology departments (I remember when technology was one pay telephone at the end of the corridor), and college counseling office staffs.

Incidentally, please take a look at the fabulous schools that our students are attending. They include very selective schools like Stanford, Yale, Duke, Cornell, Williams, Middlebury, Chapel Hill, and Boston College. The diversity of our students interests is also apparent with three students heading for Berklee College of Music and the same number heading to prestigious engineering programs.

How about this fact: the three highest profile Division I athletic scholarships this year are for women—Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State. One of them further distinguished herself as Williston Northampton’s first ever two-time All American.

There is also the issue of socioeconomic diversity—one of the greatest assets of our school and something I am absolutely committed to sustaining. That is, the number of students who are able to attend Williston because generosity in financial aid has increased, though our budget has also grown exponentially with increased costs and economic hardship

What else has changed?

You have heard of the now familiar term “helicopter parents.” Well, suffice it to say that expectations have grown in all areas for schools in terms of the services we provide. I’m sure that has something to do with the large financial investment. These increased expectations have also made schools better, I believe.

How many people here have a Facebook account, Twitter Account, or use email?  Social media has changed the ways we talk to each other and share information. Email is secondary to texting these days, and we are examining the ways we share news and stories from our campus (and the places we post that information). Cyberbullying has also become a growing trend and social issue.

I mentioned sports earlier, and it is indisputable, that athletics are more competitive than ever. You know this from your own experience with your children or grandchildren. You need to lace up size three cleats and wear a Manchester United shirt by age five to have a shot at high school soccer—again that’s boys and girls.

Our students are specializing in ways we haven’t seen before. Yet we are committed to the idea of individuals participating in team or group activities. I actually asked a faculty-led task force this year to look at the ways we use our afternoon time to achieve these goals.

Let me return to the monumental change that technology has occasioned.  The tools, the challenges to effectively incorporate those in the classroom and the expense, distractions, and opportunities are all something we wrestle with.

In academics, teachers are no longer just the sage on the stage, and students are interested in “doing and becoming” rather than just being passive learners. We have such interesting kids pursuing their passions that some even build their own curriculum and construct their own knowledge.

And yet,  Williston Northampton is the same today as the school many of you attended in many ways.

Last year, we took a long look at our mission statement, and we decided to examine who we are.  We came up with something that we believe captures the essence of the Williston Northampton experience:  The Williston Northampton School inspires students to live with purpose, passion, and integrity.

While I love to share my vision from the school, our students’ lives—their passionate belief in their dreams, which we encourage here—exemplify our mission.

A terrific example of that is one of our outstanding seniors, Sarah Hubbard.

What happens in our classrooms, on our fields, in our dorms provides a foundation for everything that follows.  That almost 350 alumni and former faculty are on this campus this weekend is a testament to the strength of this experience.

At the Class of 2012’s senior dinner, I shared remarks with them about the idea of pride and being justifiably proud of one’s accomplishments. I hope you are all as proud of your school and its rich history and legacy as I am. This institution has helped shape thousands and  its graduates are doctors, educators, etc. It continues to shape kids.  Your generosity—in terms of your resources and your time—ensures that legacy.

Along with the rest of those of us (who in many cases have devoted their lives to this campus), I thank you.  We are truly grateful for all you do to advance our cause and to keep our foundation strong.

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