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State of the School - St. Michael's Chapel - April 26, 2020

April 26th, 2020


State of the School Chapel Talk

April 26, 2020

Good evening. It is my privilege to speak with you as the head of South Kent School from St. Michael’s Chapel, site of a devastating fire three years ago. Many of you will recall gathering here when we - as a community - needed to address, or meditate upon, or consider situations facing the entire community. This place, along with the people - students, staff, faculty, and friends - sitting in these pews the way you and I have done so many times, has provided us with guidance, support, and solace. When the Chapel burned on April 18, 2017, rather than be discouraged by this tragedy, the School community embraced the challenges as presented and held services in the assembly hall with an electric piano while this structure was rebuilt. Our chapel is even more beautiful now than it was before the fire. 

Though long a cornerstone of SKS’ character, “Pigtail Against the World,” initially had nothing to do with the School. As a matter of fact, the sign was on the little train station long before the School was founded in 1923. “Pigtail Against the World” became the rallying cry for the community of South Kent, originally adopted by local, feuding farmers who had become tired of outsiders’ ridicule. They chose this declaration of solidarity to signal their unity, defiance, and independence; and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, it soon became the rallying cry of SKS as well.  

Now, as a country and as a world we are confronting an unprecedented challenge in the wake of COVID-19. Families, businesses, and communities are all feeling the many effects of this pandemic. We are scared and uncertain; we pray for loved ones who have been stricken with this virus, and we all feel the personal effects of financial challenges. Educational institutions across the nation are being tested. Just as our own savings and retirement accounts are hard hit, at school we experience our revenue losses due to the shrinking endowment, uncertainty in enrollment, and sympathy for the new inability for some families to meet their tuition obligations. We are expecting and intend to prevail, however, continuing to produce a robust, unique educational product.

Our intention to prevail rests on South Kent’s “Trinity of Values,” with which you are familiar, whether you graduated fifty years ago or within the last five, whether you are an alum, current student, parent or friend. These three values came to South Kent School from Fr. Sill, the founding head of Kent School, in a letter to our founding headmaster, Sam Bartlett. Fr. Sill wrote that the purpose or ideal at the time was “to provide at a minimum cost for boys of ability and caliber who presumably on graduation must be self-supporting, a combined academic and scientific course of study. Simplicity, self-reliance and directness of purpose are to be encouraged in the boys.” Mr. Bartlett took his advice, and these values have been the guiding principles of SKS ever since.

It would not be inaccurate to say that the School was born in adversity and is well suited to conquer it. Sam Bartlett’s diary from 1923 recounts washing in the horsetrough outside the Old Building and having to find money to string electricity to campus in the weeks before school opened for the first time. And the oft-quoted lines from the hymn we regularly sing have been influential for our entire history:

Come, labor on!
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here.

Six years after the School’s founding, the country faced the Great Depression during which students and faculty helped farm the tobacco crop, apparently the best tobacco around, the profits from which kept the School open.

Later, during World War II, life on our campus was better than in many other communities due to the abundance of potatoes and apples picked by the boys during multiple “work holidays” from the classroom. Compounding wartime scarcities were the emotional struggles upon hearing of the deaths of SKS boys, whose names are now memorialized in the side chapel. 

Recently, I talked with George Bartlett to ask him for details about life on the Hillside during the Depression and war, and he said, “We have always been ahead in rough times and behind in good times. This is who we are. This is what we do. In the Depression we grew tobacco. In WWII we grew food. By living simple lives we don’t have many extras, so there’s not as much to take care of. It’s the way we have always been.” And when I asked Nobby Richards how the School coped with these difficult times he told me “We coped because we loved the place.”

Later, in the mid-1990s the School opened with 81 students, and we survived that. At the opening of school in September 2018, we experienced the resignation of the Head of School, Chief Operations Officer, Director of Admissions, and the entire hockey coaching staff. We survived. This past fall, for example, we opened at 165 students, (the optimal number as determined by the trustees), and we are off to a very strong start with a balanced budget projected for the first time in several years, our various teams racking up wins, and our college acceptances creating an impressive list. 

We have not only survived such challenges; we have thrived because we can always find opportunity in the fear and anxiety that accompanies them. At our core we have never wavered from our Trinity of Values - Simplicity of Life, Self-Reliance, and Directness of Purpose - and it is these values that have provided us with the strength and direction to find opportunity and thrive in times of uncertainty and doubt.

In his book Good to Great author Jim Collins coined the term “The Stockdale Paradox,” which describes the mindset this School has exhibited since our founding. The Stockdale Paradox explains the way that Admiral James B. Stockdale (for whom our rink is named, with wife Sybil), survived eight years in a North Vietnamese prison camp by balancing realism with optimism, starting with understanding where you are, to get to where you want to be, one day at a time. Admiral Stockdale said: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.” I am grateful that South Kent School has such a tradition of faith that we will prevail against whatever the odds we face. This is who we are. This is what we do. It’s the way we have always been.

In his homily during the Easter sunrise service, Fr. Klots explained the many instances of balancing faith and reality in the story of Christ’s resurrection. He asked that we not be afraid in these difficult times but to rest assured in God’s love, and to look for God’s work in the world around us with people choosing to act in love rather than fear. As the sun rose over Bull Mountain, Father Klots explained that “the fear we share is real, but we cannot let it blind us from the love of God.” 

To follow Admiral Stockdale’s and Fr. Klots’ advice and examples then, I’d like to shift from the realities of our struggles to the thoughtful good we do on campus today, and the ways we apply the old guidelines to the new reality. I’d like to explain to you how we are thriving today, and why I firmly believe that SKS will come through this latest challenge by finding the opportunities that are always present. 

One of the first tasks we undertook two years ago was to rewrite our mission statement. I don’t really remember what our previous statement was, only that it was several paragraphs long and promised that we excelled at everything for everybody in all ways. After much work and consultation with alumni, trustees, faculty and staff, we boiled down our mission statement to one sentence: 

South Kent School prepares young men to succeed in college and thrive as thoughtful and engaged citizens in a rapidly changing and intensely competitive world.

This simple statement pulls together the various lessons we have always taught and which now drives us, along with our Trinity of Values, in every decision and undertaking.

One recent undertaking was to review our entire curriculum, asking “Why?” of everything that we did on the campus. To aid us in this endeavor, I charged a small visiting committee, including alumni Sam Simmons ‘68 and Sid Stockdale ‘73, to review all parts of our teachings to make sure that they supported the mission and provided value to the School traditionally as well as in today’s 21st century. Their opening paragraph of their final report affirms what we do every day on the Hillside in 2020, based on the lessons started in 1923:

“The SKS faculty and staff are a hard-working, dedicated group. Not only are they aware of the School’s mission and ethos, but they also work hard to present themselves as institutional role models for the students. There is a collective appreciation of boys, the way boys learn and interact with one another, and they strive to address the unique educational (and social) needs of boys.” 

Our faculty heroes today, highlighted in this report, are every bit as dedicated and talented as the faculty heroes from previous years. Fr. Steve Klots, for example, is as good as any chaplain I have ever seen or heard about in my life, anywhere, at any time. On top of his duties as chaplain, Fr. Klots teaches AP English, coaches cross country, runs our jobs program, leads our recycling efforts, and is a member of the Administrative Team. Moreover, his ministry extends well beyond the Hillside: he has been filling in at St. Andrew’s in Kent as they search for a replacement for their recently retired priest. In recognition of this care and commitment, St. Andrew’s recently rang their 8:00 community bell 26 times, once for each year of Fr. Klots’ tenure at SKS and as a spiritual force in the town of Kent. 

Meanwhile, Patrick Beer, our Third Form English teacher and Third Form Dean, was recently honored with a Distinguished Alumnus Award from his alma mater, Boston College, as “a graduate who embodies the Jesuit ideals of men and women for others, who pursues the greater good in all things and exemplifies care for the whole person.” Patrick previously served as principal of New Richmond High School in Québec, where he was recognized for his support of at-risk students by the Québec Ministry of Education. On campus, Patrick is primary caregiver and cheerleader, not only to the Third Form but also to all the other boys.

Likewise, Cheryl Moore has taught art at South Kent for many years and regularly has more students sign up for her classes than we have the facilities in which she can teach them. She has had multiple students recognized both locally and regionally for their excellent work in many mediums, but her most impressive accomplishments are instilling in novices an appreciation for and love of art, and her work as the choreographer, director, and participant in the annual Halloween Preppy Zombie Thriller dance in downtown Kent.

In addition, Owen Finberg, our longtime Director of Athletics, has overseen our shift to high performance athletic teams while coaching our soccer team to four national and nine New England championships. He has done this while advocating for the important lessons that athletics teach about life through competition, leadership, and teamwork. For the last twelve years, including this one, every graduating senior from the soccer team has been recruited to play in college. Many of these young men also served as prefects. Under Owen’s leadership, we have seen the continued strength of the community with undefeated and national champion soccer teams, national champion hockey teams, the advent of a high performance golf team, and the pending rebuild of our basketball program - while significantly enhancing our college acceptance lists. We certainly have overcome the challenge of being a small school on the national stage. 

Moving ahead after the visiting committee submitted its report, I asked our Chief Academic Officer Phil Darrin to create a faculty task force to consider the committee’s findings and reshape our various curricula into a single, unified curriculum that includes all areas of our boys’ lives and experiences here at SKS: academic, residential, athletic and social. Most of this work was to determine how we can apply the skills identified by experts as necessary for the 21st century, and teach them in our small, all-boy, relationship-based community so that our students will thrive in the rapidly changing and competitive world that they inhabit. 

We developed a Scope and Sequence of both skills and content so that our school curriculum will teach age appropriate and boy-centric topics and skills; a single curriculum upon which we can build as the boys progress through the forms. Understanding that Third Formers are not yet developmentally ready to handle more than one question or topic at once, we built appropriate skills and pedagogies into the understandings for all Third Form courses and activities. Since boys learn best when they are active investors in their own education (rather than passively told about it), and because they need support and guidance to make mistakes and learn from them, such active engagement with material is now a part of courses and activities across campus. Boys need to do things and build things and drop things and smash things; and we are discovering and designing ways for them to do this in all aspects of their lives here. It is exciting to watch this work progress as our focus on being all-boys and small by design becomes clearer and more specific. 

Currently enrolled at South Kent are 165 students from 22 states and 20 foreign countries. We are diverse any way you consider the word. 35% of our upper school students are taking college level math. The national average SAT score for males is 1060; the average South Kent SAT score is 1170. The national average ACT score for males is 21; the average SKS ACT score is 25.

Ten years ago, we joined a partnership with Syracuse University in their Syracuse University Project Advance, or SUPA program. SUPA offers college courses to high school seniors for credit at participating schools. Our own faculty, certified by Syracuse, teach college level courses on the Hillside where students receive actual credit from Syracuse University - credits which are transferable to the colleges our students attend after SKS graduation. We currently offer four SUPA courses: Calculus, Chemistry, Statistics, and Entrepreneurship. Feedback from young alumni indicates that they feel extremely well prepared for college work, much beyond what they would experience in typical Advanced Placement ( AP) courses. To date SKS students have earned almost 1500 college credits, with our institutional GPA being well above the average GPA of other schools in SUPA.

These flexible adaptations to modern times and to current educational practices have brought about a college acceptance list that is stronger than it has been in many years. In the past few weeks we have heard some of our Sixth Formers being accepted into such colleges as Penn State, multiple campuses of the University of California, Boston College, Boston University, Georgetown University, George Washington, New York University, Northeastern, and William and Mary.

Alongside such scholastic success, our boys continue to demonstrate the lasting ideals of our relationship-based community. When one of our students from Ghana lost his father this past year for instance, some of his friends started a Go-Fund-Me page and within 48 hours the boys had raised enough money to send their friend home to bury his dad.  And, on the day of his return to campus the student and staff community wore “We Love Seidu” T-shirts to welcome him back.

Another fitting example of our relationship-based community involves 16 international students who could not go home for spring break and have remained on the Hillside. Their parents are grateful that we kept them rather than turning them out to fend for themselves as many other schools did at a time when they could not travel home. Despite the campus being locked down and all of us practicing social distancing, these boys are still feeling the love and support of the community. 

Our classes for the foreseeable future will be conducted online, as will our community life program, chapel, and physical education classes. Although separated by many miles, our community is as close as ever and our boys continue to receive a South Kent education no matter where they are in the world.

In typical South Kent fashion we see the current imposed changes in our delivery of an SKS education to hold key opportunities. Looking to the future, I see us learning from the opportunities and lessons of COVID-19 and continuing the path that we have set so deliberately in the past and to which we have recommitted ourselves in the previous two years. I see us blending the current thinking on pedagogy and adolescent male development, shifting content emphases, and teaching the skills our boys will need for their world, rather than content and delivery that have worked so well for us in the past. I see us becoming increasingly global and diverse in all ways while remaining independent, communal, and small by design.  I see us balancing the best of the old with the opportunities of the future, and providing our unique, all-encompassing education for generations of students yet to come. 

We plan to open campus this fall term as scheduled, yet we are also planning for a variety of possible scenarios. At present, I cannot say for sure that we will be back on campus in September for classes or whether we will be continuing classes through distance learning. I cannot yet tell you what our enrollment might be, and I cannot yet tell you all the ways in which COVID-19 will affect educational institutions in the long-term. I can say for certain, however, that contributions of wisdom, work, and wealth from our entire extended community will help South Kent School conquer this difficult time and help reach our dreams to become stronger than ever. It is, without a doubt, the people in our community who have always made this place so special. In my 42 years experience, I tell you confidently that I have never before worked with a more dedicated, talented, and committed group of educators, nor with a more loyal, understanding alumni body. Our faculty deliver our mission every day for the benefit of our students. And our alumni body has always provided the additional support that we occasionally needed to get through tough times like these. I have written to you before about the importance of making our people the immediate priority and focus of SKS. We cannot deviate from this; we need to support our faculty and staff to ensure that they can continue to deliver the same education and the same values that faculty and staff have provided for almost one hundred years. The South Kent Fund gives our school the flexibility to meet all of the challenges ahead, and the impact of your participation has never been more profoundly felt by all of us here today.

The Form of 1967 has already stepped up. I received a letter from them, penned by John Dunn, part of which I would like to read to you:

“During our too-brief years at Pigtail we were thoroughly inculcated with the principles of ‘Simplicity of Life, Directness of Purpose and Self-Reliance.’ ... Our 50th anniversary offered us an opportunity to reunite and celebrate the experiences we enjoyed at SKS, and to acknowledge how important those three principles have been to each of us as we have pursued our separate paths in life.

“Therefore, the Class of 1967 presents the remainder of our 50th Anniversary funds to Headmaster Lawrence Smith, not to be combined with any other funds and to be used at his sole discretion to defray expenses associated with the present extraordinary circumstances. South Kent School is our extended family and we all have prospered in our lives as a result of the teachings, guidance, and experiences from the School. We support the Headmaster, faculty, and staff wholeheartedly in their efforts to keep our school alive and viable for the benefit of current and future students. Thank you and God Bless you all.”

At the end of each day I try to read for a bit, sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for an hour or so. I just finished Erik Larson’s new book The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz. One particular speech by Churchill grabbed my attention. At that time, the German Luftwaffe was dropping thousands of pounds of bombs each evening, primarily on the city of London, from hundreds of planes. Speaking to Parliament and the world, though Churchill’s real audience was US President Franklin Roosevelt who he was trying to persuade to enter the war, Churchill’s words leapt off the page to me: 

“We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”

With your help I look forward to finishing the job. I look forward to celebrating our Centennial in 2023-2024 and preparing the School to embrace another hundred years of Simplicity of Life, Self-Reliance and Directness of Purpose. I look forward to gathering in the Chapel once more, all singing together:

Come, labor on!
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
Servants, well done!

As we face these challenges together, I welcome your support, in all ways, whether offering your work, your wisdom, or your wealth to contribute to the South Kent of today and to the South Kent of tomorrow. With your continued help, I look forward to finishing the job together.

Pigtail against the world!

Thanks be to God.

Posted in the categories General, Alumni.

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