As we mark the end of our first two weeks together as a community of St. Andrew’s, it is good to be here at Old St. Anne’s, an historic church connected in so many ways to the history of the school.
Just behind me, outside and up the hill to the left, is the grave of the school’s Founder, Alexis Felix duPont, who in 1929 created and began this great experiment in American and ultimately global education. I visit that grave site each time I come here—to offer my respect, to remember his generosity, and to contemplate for a few moments the honor I have in leading St. Andrews for 23 years.
As many of you know, Felix duPont articulated and shared a radical vision for this new school in 1929. He built the school quite purposefully to honor, recognize, and welcome students from low and modest socio-economic backgrounds. At the time of our founding, every other American boarding school existed to educate and elevate the most affluent members of the American upper class establishment.
In contrast, St. Andrew’s opened as a school dedicated precisely to many of those who could not participate in the American prep school program, and in so doing we brought into question the methodology of the private school tradition itself. I think our Founder would be pleased to learn that his original model of socio-economic inclusion is now fully embraced and accepted by all the best American colleges and universities.
Over the past 90 years, that commitment to low and modest income families expanded dramatically, as the St. Andrew’s we know today embraced a broad and inclusive form of human dignity and rights. The school gained its voice, its energy, its courage, its unity as we welcomed all to the community.
This year, St. Andrew’s offers almost $7 million in financial aid to bring the school, the students you see today, assembled together. The St. Andrew’s ever-expanding vision both of our common humanity and diversity now merges perfectly with our commitment to financial aid. Students from every single socio-economic background choose St. Andrew’s, knowing that the experience of living in this kind community will expand their hearts, minds, and vision and prepare them for lives in a nation and world that are diverse.
Research now clearly indicates that audacious financial aid programs provide valuable and life-changing educational experiences not only to students receiving aid; all students learn more, engage more, achieve more in and out of the classroom through the dynamic created by socio-economic diversity. Teachers come and stay here at St. Andrew’s because of the remarkable students who make up this community, students who are both united in their search for learning and meaning and goodness and excellence and at the same time so utterly and wonderfully different. I think I speak for all our teachers in saying that we are here because financial aid at St. Andrew’s is here. We are here because all of you are here.
It is important to remember that Mr. duPont’s gift to make financial aid the school’s foundation was his way of celebrating the American dream, the American promise that quality education would lead to personal and democratic progress, equality, and opportunity. St. Andrew’s was meant not for the replication of the old aristocratic order, but rather for enlightened new leadership for the country and the world. We were meant to be a school for a new emerging America, one that would include us all, one that would feature leaders born not in privilege, but in opportunity.
In 1997, when I accepted the position of Head of School here, I understood that my opportunity was to cultivate the best school possible in the 21st century. I understood that I had the greatest resources of all as the foundation: the remarkable mission and purpose of St. Andrew’s that announced so clearly that this is to be a different kind of boarding school; the faculty and staff who literally came and worked here to pursue and honor this ideal of America and diversity; the financial aid program that I knew could be expanded in so many important and innovative ways; and a student body that would respond to such diversity with proximity, appreciation, understanding, and grace. For me no other school anywhere offered this opportunity to create a community that sought to build a new America, a new global community.
I did not realize in 1997 that this kind of school and community would confront decades that included the attacks of September 11, 2001; armed conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq; school shootings, including those at Columbine, Parkland, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook; white supremacy marches; shootings in Charlottesville, El Paso, Charleston, and Pittsburgh; an immigration controversy that would lead us to separate families and lock children up in communal cages; and a country so divided by politics and ideological polarization that a known international enemy could join in the 2016 election to separate and alienate us from one another even more. I did not know all of that in 1997, but I did know that the calling together of a diverse and united community could enable us to create the best response and culture possible for education, engagement, and leadership in 21st century life.
St. Andrew’s has connected powerful teaching and learning to the experience and responsibility of living in a country, a world, a school of diversity, and we have committed to human rights, human dignity, radical listening, open minds school forums, and a community service ethic and visiting speaker program that inspires us not to hide from, but rather embrace the world.
We have our moments when we fall into pettiness, drama, insular concerns (we seem so small, diminished, and sorry at those times), but on the whole our school is strong, brave, vibrant, and responsible. Over these years, the cultivation of virtues of kindness, empathy, and grace became powerful and illuminating as we unite, form friendships, and allyship with all. These human expressions of grace, human dignity, and respect are the essence of St. Andrew’s.
Now the flourishing of a school with a deep historical and current commitment to financial aid depends on a number of habits of mind and heart:
Our identity as a school of opportunity for all, regardless of socio-economic status should protect us most of the time from the curse of private school elitism, exclusivity, and provincialism. We are a community composed of students from public and private schools alike. We know that there is nothing superior, nothing significant in a private school that sets itself apart from the world, or from the incredible work of our public schools. We know that attitudes of superiority and arrogance are precursors for seeing our neighbors as the Other.
Our identity of inclusion should inspire community service and open minds initiatives that inform our community members’ attitudes and approaches to a wide variety of topics and controversies.
Our identity as a school devoted to financial aid should make us aware of the very different financial pressures, financial circumstances, and financial choices we each may experience. We need to be sensitive and cognizant of the subtle or not-so-subtle ways money affects our ability to feel included, recognized, and heard in our community. We need to honor parents and grandparents as they visit campus, especially if these are their first visits to St. Andrew’s, especially if they assume that money is the differentiator between being recognized and being unseen. We can become more aware about assumptions and how talk about vacations, travel, online or actual shopping can easily lead to a presumption that all have access to such experiences and purchases. We need to remember that many members of our community work each summer and vacation period to make their St. Andrew’s experience possible. We need to remember the ways financial circumstances can divide our communities, cities, and towns, and we can therefore be more aware and sensitive to the needs and concerns of others. I have always appreciated the fact that at St. Andrew’s, I make decisions based on the good of the community and never have to feel pressure due to financial influence, financial pressure, or financial considerations.
Our educational programs will inspire you for the rest of your lives to resist the segregation spreading in the world: socio-economic segregation, political segregation, racial, ethnic, and religious segregation. Our community should inspire you to use your education not to run away from challenges, crises, and citizens in distress, but rather to embrace proximity and engagement with the full human family.
Finally, the gift of Mr. duPont will help you live out the other radical concept in the St. Andrew’s founding vision: to create a school community and world that is endowed with grace, love, compassion, and understanding. With financial aid as the foundation, St. Andrew’s aspires to teach us that the best and only way forward in the 21st century is to embrace the full complexity and majesty of the human family, it calls us to live together as family and to begin the process of changing the world by exposing the corrosive effects of bigotry, prejudice, and hatred.
1929 was a perfect time for a boarding school dedicated to providing financial aid opportunity for a new and wide spectrum. 2019 is just as perfect a time to explore and celebrate this vision. Look around you and appreciate this community gathered here this morning. When we return to this sacred place in May, we will honor our seniors and evaluate the work we together have created in the 2019-2020 school year. Let’s be sure to have many stories of courage, bravery, collaboration, and love to remember.
- Headmaster News