Commencement 2017

…I see my friends here before me, and I feel a deep sense of gratitude as I am flooded with memories of the times we’ve shared.  Although my personal recollections are probably a little different from yours, one thing is for sure:  We’re all very lucky to have had such transformative relationships with our teachers, and to have benefited from such invaluable opportunities to learn.  This, indeed, is St. Luke’s.   

                         – Luke Martocchio, St. Luke’s Salutatorian 2017, Attending Harvard


In his impeccable address, Salutatorian Luke Martocchio captured the spirit of Commencement—a time to reflect and enjoy a flood of memories—before the next journey and new memories begin.

I referenced Luke’s “stratospheric GPA” and “the quality of his intellect” when introducing him. But as we listened to him celebrate his teachers—from Mrs. Olsen in fifth grade through a host of Middle and Upper School faculty—we knew Luke’s greatest asset is his huge heart.

Awe-inspiring “intellectual prowess and acumen” describe Valedictorian Grace Zaro. As I cautioned the Commencement audience: “Do not be fooled by her casual demeanor.  This is a scholar who combines innate brilliance with both discipline and a fiercely intense focus.  In high school this has brought her to valedictory heights.  At Stanford and beyond, the sky seems the limit.”

Gracie gave a provocative address. She used “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” protagonist Randle Patrick McMurphy to demonstrate humor is not a cop out:  “When a situation is hard or frustrating, it is the little one-liner, the ability to self deprecate, that makes the fight easier. Humor is not a cop out, it is an advanced defense mechanism. Think about it: it is free, it is legal, it is harmless. It is your opponent’s worst nightmare.”

Class of 2017

Each year, I marvel at the skills of our young speakers and the intense emotional impact of this day. When will I become desensitized? Never, I suspect. It’s an honor to send these wonderful people out into the world. And a beautiful sorrow to bid them farewell. Below is from my Commencement farewell:

“Whatever you achieve in your lives, remember to seek out communities like this one.  Places that offer you connection, the feeling of rootedness, and the timeless values that St. Luke’s has.  We live in a time of constant change, of uncertainty about what the future will hold for us…or ask of us…and of relentless questioning of what many of us considered timeless truths for most of our lives.

As any great skipper will tell you, your moorings matter.  Without that safe harbor, that tether to something stable and comforting, that thing to which you can cling when storms seem otherwise overwhelming – without that, moving forward feels scarier and more difficult.

Soon – at college and throughout your life – you will face tough choices, in new communities and in unfamiliar cultures.  You might encounter a fraternity brother or sorority sister who wants you to drink yourself into oblivion, to prove…who-knows-what.  Maybe it will be a roommate – or a boss – who seems to lack a sense of honor.  Whatever the circumstance…remember us.  Remember St. Luke’s, and all the people who love you.  Remember that here you have constructed a strong moral compass…within yourself.  It’s there.  Use it.  Whenever you feel untethered, remember St. Luke’s.”

Enjoy this Commencement 2017 Photo Gallery (we’ll keep adding photos so check back).

St. Luke’s is a private, secular (non-religious) independent school in New Canaan, CT serving grades 5-12. St. Luke’s mission: An exceptional education that inspires a deep love of learning, a strong moral compass, the commitment to serve, and the confidence to lead.  Come visit us!

SJLS: Curious Leaders

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

Samuel Johnson


We are all born curious. And if lucky…our curiosity grows.

Tapping our students’ innate desire to know more about each other and the world around us—that is the inspiration behind the Social Justice Leadership Summit (SJLS).

I attended the SJLS in 2014 and wrote: “In more than thirty years as an educator, I have never participated in an event that built as much trust, or inspired as much faith and hope as the SJLS.” Nearly three years later, the SJLS continues to thrive. There were 35 students and faculty the year I attended. This year (January 28, 2017), there were sixty.

Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, Director of Inclusive Excellence & Leadership, describes the SJLS to students this way: “SJLS is a one day leadership retreat where you will explore your own personal identities, learn about perspectives different from your own, and most importantly seek commonalities with classmates. With all the divisions in our world right now, we should all be working a little harder to find commonalities.”

The SJLS is also a catalyst for student leadership, as Dr. Bramlett points out: “Two years ago students put together ideas that inspired the launch of my new American Cultural History class. Last year, students saw a need for more diversity programs in Middle School and this year, those same students will run a Middle School workshop called Ally Afternoon. Another idea that students made a reality is “Dive-Ins” where students host conversations and welcome diverse perspectives. They don’t just talk. They take action.”

I’m particularly enthusiastic about the Dive-Ins because they foster civil discourse—an essential leadership skill.  Topics have included Colin Kaepernick’s controversial protest of the national anthem and a Dive In about students’ hopes and fears around the new president. More than 50 students have dived in to tough, important conversations.

My hope is to have a student or two share reflections from this weekend’s summit. The positive anticipation leading up to this weekend was palpable. According to Dr. Bramlett, senior Matthew Lindsay best captured the pre-summit excitement: “It’s going to be lit!”

I’m pretty sure that’s good 🙂

St. Luke’s is a private independent school in New Canaan, CT serving grades 5-12. St. Luke’s mission: an exceptional education that inspires a deep love of learning, a strong moral compass, the commitment to serve, and the confidence to lead.  Come visit!

The Confidence to Lead

A group of ten year olds earnestly discusses whose life they will affect—the young woman in Indonesia whose village needs water filters, or the young man in Jordan trying to pay his school fees?

 The Fifth Grade Kiva Club is making a difference in the lives of people all over the world. Their teacher (Ty Wieland) provides structure and students take the lead—presenting work to peers, driving support and selecting fund beneficiaries. So far, the Kiva Club (including advisories and families) has loaned $6,400 to more than 120 people working to better their lives .

Take a look at the video below, created by our students (with a bit of help from Ty and Academic Technologist, Eli Fendelman). I watched it and marvelled at the elements of our mission on display—an exceptional education that inspires a deep love of learning, a strong moral compass, the commitment to serve and the confidence to lead.

I am grateful to these compassionate, young leaders who are living our mission. They inspire their peers, teachers and, most of all, their  Head of School.  



State of the School 2016

“I’d been told that the State of the School evening was not to be missed. That’s certainly an understatement. My wife Meghan and I walked out of the building and we both were virtually speechless. Truly, I’m at a loss for words to express what a fantastic, inspirational evening it was. Best I can do is, simply, wow! I’m sure there are more eloquent ways to say it, but that one unsophisticated word seems to say it all.

—St. Luke’s Parent, Christopher Rosow

Many years ago, someone asked me: “What’s the goal of the State of the School?” I answered: “To make sure every parent feels informed and leaves thinking—I’m so happy we chose St. Luke’s.”

When I receive a note like the one above, I think mission accomplished. This year, the St. Luke’s mission was front and center as Board Chair Bob Wyckoff and I—along with several guest speakers—presented Living the Mission. It was the first State of the School to feature student speakers and as you might ascertain from Christopher’s comment, they were a big hit.

My thanks to these poised, articulate students, to the Jazz Band and their leader, Bob Leinbach, who sent us into the night still buzzing from their electric performance, and to Co-Chairs Barb Clayton and Michelle Diliberto whose parent team once again executed a truly exceptional dinner celebration.

If you missed it…


Click to view slides and photos from the State of the School 2016.

My Summer Letter

“The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever.”

                                                                                     ―E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Do you hear the crickets?  I’m afraid they’re right.  Summer cannot last forever, but happily its end means we return to the Hilltop for a year of learning, friendship and growth.

Summer offers so many opportunities for us to use our time in ways we can’t during the school year.  For me, it especially means more time to spend with family, more time to play golf, and more time to read.  I trust everyone has embraced the summer reading.  Thus far I’ve read:

How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, by Frank Bruni

The Second Machine Age, by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

The Elon Musk Blog Series, by Tim Urban

The Libertarian Mind, by David Boaz

Buddhism, by Huston Smith and Philip Novak

Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda


Hoping to make a further dent in my imposingly high stack of books as I begin a two-week vacation. So many books, so little time….

Meanwhile, the Hilltop has been bustling all summer.  The Fifth grade renovation has kept our dedicated facilities team on full throttle, as has their determination to keep the entire campus beautiful for our families’ return.  Between our own growing summer programs (i2 Camp, Maker Camp, Writing Workshop), St. Luke’s summer squash programs, and the various sports camps hosted on our fields—it’s quite easy to forget the school year ended in early June.

In less than two weeks, our new faculty arrives and then full faculty meetings begin. We’ll share profiles of our new teachers in the coming weeks. We also have several internal promotions and new hires  including:

Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, formerly Dean of Upper School Student Life and Director of  Diversity, joins the Center For Leadership as Director of Inclusive Excellence and Leadership.  In this key role, she will work closely with CFL staff and the entire St. Luke’s community to assure that inclusive thinking and leadership support the School’s Mission and all academic and co-curricular programs.

Dan Clarke takes the helm of the Storm Zone as our new Sports Information Specialist. Dan replaces Ethan Pearce ‘11 who heads to law school. You may know Dan as St. Luke’s Varsity Girls soccer coach—a role he will continue to play (the crowd cheers).

Barbara Clayton becomes our new Parent Liaison, replacing Heather Freeman who served so well in the position for two years. Barb was a St. Luke’s parent for 15 years (Will ‘09, Henry ‘11 and Sally ‘16) and twice served as the PA Board President, most recently last year.

Eli Fendelman is our new Academic Technologist. Along with Bruce Strothenke and Matt Bavone, he’ll be working with teachers and students to leverage technology for learning. Take a look at Eli’s distinctive job application for a sense of his skills and personality.

Anna Knechtel transitions to Assistant Athletic Director–a role that recognizes her contributions to the Athletics program. Anna will spend half of her time in the training room, where she leads the effort to provide the best care for our student-athletes. She is supported by Athletic Trainer Nicole Guido who moves to full time. Jennifer Besgen remains in her crucial role as Associate Athletic Director, focusing on the Middle School program.

Stephen Vehslage is our new Associate Director of College Counseling. As a St. Luke’s parent (Wiley ‘13, Bailey ‘16, Henry ‘16 and Sadie ‘20), Stephen is a familiar face. He brings sixteen years of experience at New Canaan High School where he  served as chairman of the faculty and taught AP Government, Law, and other Social Studies courses. Prior to his career in education, Stephen worked as an attorney.

Matt Ward is our Upper School Dean of Students. As Director of Athletics at Kent Place and Miss Hall’s, he worked closely with each Dean of Students. He comes to St. Luke’s with great energy and is looking forward to working with students and parents. Matt will take over many of the student life responsibilities Stephanie Bramlett formerly had. He will work closely with Noel Thomas, who assumes a new role as Assistant Upper School Dean of Students. Noel brings a great deal of wisdom and experience to the team. Matt and Noel will lead Upper School culture, discipline, and activities with the support of the eight Class Deans.

As outlined in my June 10 letter, Associate Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Mike Rupp is serving as Interim Director, with Elisabeth Evans serving as Interim Associate Director until Ginny Bachman returns as Director in January.

There is much more to share. Keep up with summer news on  St. Luke’s Facebook and Twitter (@StLukesSchool, @MarkDavisSLS).

New parents, please save August 24 for the annual New Parents Barbecue, a great way to meet other parents as well as many school administrators, teachers and trustees.  And all parents should reserve October 6 for The State of the School — the perfect opportunity to gather with friends, learn how St. Luke’s is doing in the marketplace of independent schools, and hear all about our plans for the future.

Wishing you a wonderful August filled with family, books, playtime, sunshine and crickets.

See you soon on the Hilltop,



Opening Eyes

This week I turn my space over to Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, St. Luke’s Director of Diversity & Student Life…

“Does my office always look like this?”

This was my first thought as I walked into my office on Monday morning. The brightly colored handouts strewn about the floor, post-it notes plastered to every surface, and hastily scribbled ideas on the dry-erase board, made it look like creative genius had exploded.  As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and sipped my coffee—I smiled.  It has been a busy month at St. Luke’s.

The St. Luke’s community works hard to ensure all members are able to be themselves— regardless of race, gender, financial aid status, family structure, or learning difference.  This is how we envision our school.  This busy January, it was clear our students have the courage and character to do the hard work of building an inclusive community.

A few weeks ago, the Student Diversity Leadership Council led a meeting to train faculty on how to facilitate difficult conversations.  Faculty used these skills in an upper school conversation about the “N-Word”  The objective of the conversation was not to police language or tell people what to think, but rather to open an honest dialogue about the intent and impact of language.

In the last week of January, our 9th graders participated in J-Term, a five day long project-based learning experience themed, “Our Shrinking World.”  The 9th graders’ task was to design a community service project that tackled a local manifestation of a global social injustice.  Our whole community was invited to attend an exhibition where the 9th grade project groups pitched their service idea and the whole community voted on which service project we would do.

During the exhibition of project ideas, students enthusiastically called me over to explain the social injustice they had studied and tell me about their plan for restoring justice.  The two winning projects were from the Poverty and Gender Equity groups. The Gender Equity group’s service idea was to engage the whole upper school in a conversation about gender equity.  Our children are eager to talk about social justice issues and we are committed to finding the time and space for them to have these conversations.  

Social Justice Leadership Summit 2016

Social Justice Leadership Summit 2016

On January 31st, the third annual SLS Social Justice Leadership Summit and Ally Workshop boasted a record number of participants.  Forty-four students and nine faculty facilitators gathered for a day of learning about  race, class, gender, ability, religion, and other social and core identities.  In an epic fourteen-hour day, we shared perspectives, learned from one another, and brainstormed ideas for making SLS an even more inclusive community.

Sophomore, Kate Stamoulis comments, “I had never been a part of something so meaningful, and I can definitely say that it was indeed life changing.  I feel as though I have really found a passion for social justice, and it has opened my eyes to so many things about our world.”

We are teaching students how to articulate their perspectives and how listen to someone else’s perspective.  We are asking them to become scholars of their own epistemology and to think about why they think what they think.  In conversations about our differences, we are teaching students how to find common ground and shared understandings.  

In Mark Davis’s Unafraid blog, he said “There is nothing more valuable than teaching our children to think, debate, and learn from one another.”  Seeing our students’ eagerness to dive into tough issues and make a difference in their world…put that smile on my face.





“When I hear that word it feels terrible. It’s like someone just wiped away my family’s whole history.”

Earlier this month, the Student Diversity Leadership Council (SDLC) led an unusual Upper School faculty meeting. The students asked faculty to share thoughts about use of the “N-word” in our culture and at St. Luke’s. They asked us to think about its origins and whether different people should be able to use the word.

Some parents will be stunned to hear that language is used on the Hilltop, but your children will likely confirm it happens…a lot. Daily for many Upper School kids, and at least weekly for most. They might be quick to reassure you that “it doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when you were young.” It’s used in a “friendly” way, often by students of color, but not exclusively by them. It does not carry the same awful weight it once did.

The quotation at top is from a St. Luke’s student of color. It tells a different story. This young woman feels every ugly ounce of the word.

On Thursday, the SDLC will lead the N-word conversations with Upper School students during an extended “fishbowl” Meditation period. On January 30th, students and faculty will have deep, important, sometimes difficult conversations at our 3rd annual Social Justice Leadership Summit. Previous participants have found that this experience gives them both understanding and confidence to engage in discussions of differences and injustices (real and perceived) that most of us find so scary or sensitive that we avoid having them.

These are courageous events. Not just for the students and teachers who participate, but for St. Luke’s. We don’t have to have these hard conversations. We could just outlaw the N-word and move on. Talking is awkward. It also stirs up resentment. Several parents tell me they are offended by these conversations. Their children feel guilty even though they are not racist. “Don’t we have better things to spend time on?”

My answer is: No. There is nothing more valuable than teaching our children to think, debate, and learn from one another. Racial, religious, economic and gender biases and prejudices exist. While each of us wishes that were not so, we do our children a disservice by pretending otherwise. Our intent, our mission, calls us to teach our children to tune into issues beyond their own bubbles. Connect, contemplate, discuss, disagree, debate. Respect and learn from views different from your own, even as you perhaps deepen your own convictions and try to persuade others to your point of view. If we can’t talk about challenges, we certainly can’t solve problems.

The Atlantic published a thought-provoking piece highlighting what happens when students are unwilling—or unable—to engage in civil debate about matters close to the heart:

…I see some of these well-intentioned young people undermining the First Amendment; spitting on people with whom they disagree; using stigma and “call out” culture rather than persuasion against non-bigoted speech; physically intimidating members of the press; bullying students who disagree with them; shredding newspapers because they disagree with an article; and calling for dissent to be punished. They don’t understand why this is both counterproductive and wrongheaded.

We want more for our students. They will draw upon the courage of their convictions. They will embrace civil debate and tough conversations as a privilege and an obligation. They will be served well by their St. Luke’s experiences and the fact that we don’t shy away from uncomfortable topics.

They will be unafraid to go forth and make a difference in the world.

P.S. If you’ve not yet done so, please watch Jim Foley’s brilliant Meditation on hip hop and the power of language.  Jim educates, entertains, and ultimately persuades listeners that the history behind words matters.

Balancing Act: Tech Benefits & Boundaries


It’s my pleasure to feature a post by Matt Bavone who wears two hats at St. Luke’s: Upper School Classics teacher and Academic Technologist. Matt shares much-needed guidance for those trying to remove the phone surgically attached to their teen (spouse? self?).

One of the most common observations we hear from parents is that their children seem overly attached to—even obsessed with—their phones. In December, the Hilltop unplugged for the day and we all experienced life without our mobile devices, including cell phones. This was a big adjustment for the adults in the building, too, as we are also accustomed to being connected. But being “unplugged” is not a realistic solution on most days. So how can we—the adults—restore balance as we care for and raise Generation Z? We know parents are looking for good ideas.

This recent article by Janell Burley Hofmann underscores the need to responsibly introduce teens and tweens to technology. Hofmann pioneered the Slow Tech Parenting Movement, and she has created a sample contract for giving her 13 year old son his first iPhone. Her overarching message is that with great power comes great responsibility—and there is no greater power than having all of the world’s information outlets at your fingertips.

We cannot hope to shelter our young ones from technology, it is all around us. We are steeped in it daily, whether we think about it or not. Yet it is this thoughtfulness, this deliberate use of technology that is most important to pass down and teach. We parents and teachers—Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers—are tasked with being role models for its appropriate use. We will falter at times, give in to habit or distraction, but so will our young wards. The most important thing that we can do is to keep an open and honest conversation going and Hofmann’s article contains excellent talking points to that end. And though the task may at times seem daunting, as she puts it: “we are in this together.”

—Matt Bavone

More Masterful Meditations

St. Luke’s Mission: An exceptional education that inspires a deep love of learning, a strong moral compass, the commitment to serve, and the confidence to lead.

Last post featured Jim Foley’s Meditation. I said it was one of the best I’d ever heard. Doug Lyons, the Executive Director of CAIS, watched it and left a comment on this blog:

You “took my breath away” Jim. Important message – powerfully, artistically delivered. So proud to have you in the CT CAIS family. 

Love to you and the St. Luke’s community.

Shortly after reading Doug’s comment, I listened to Frank Henson deliver an outstanding Meditation. In fourteen minutes, his story (and magnificent story telling) brings the meaning of a strong moral compass to life.

On a similar, mission-focused note, Liz Perry masterfully turns up love of learning and turns down the pressure on her Upper School listeners. She tells of a morning, many years ago, when she did the unthinkable and overslept for an important test—shattering her grade and her self-image. Told with humor, the message of self-love and acceptance is invaluable.

My deepest gratitude to these exceptional educators. Give a listen; these are wonderful lessons for students of any age.




Jim Foley: Music & Meaning

Jim Foley recently delivered one of best Meditations I’ve ever heard at St. Luke’s. For those not familiar, Meditations are an Upper School tradition wherein a student or faculty member shares a personal reflection—anything meaningful—with the community. Last week, Jim shared his love of hip hop music and masterfully wove in lessons about anger, oppression, expression, and the mind-blowing power of words and imagery.

Jim’s presentation expands our lenses. He asks us to think about the messages we put out there. He tells us there is no place in this world for certain words that “belong buried at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.” While listening, I could not help but think about recent headlines re: Yale University and University of Missouri. So much pain—how much could be avoided if we learned, early on, to be respectful of one another?

Please enjoy this lesson from one of St. Luke’s exceptional educators: Meditation by Jim Foley, Assistant Head of School for Leadership & Innovation.

Diversity: Messy, Imperfect, Essential

“The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.”

Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, in an interview with the New York Times, illuminates why our diversity initiatives at St. Luke’s are so critical.

Diversity is not a matter of opinion, or a political posture. It is deep within the DNA of our school and central to our mission. As we wrap up this year’s theme of Building an Inclusive Community, it’s important to note that our work in this area is certainly not done. Unless our world changes drastically, we will never be finished teaching and learning about diversity.

Our focus on diversity and inclusion (the atmosphere that makes diversity possible) is not a sign that St. Luke’s has a “problem.” It does not mean that our families are racist. Quite the contrary, the fact that we spend valuable time focused on developing our students’ compassion, respect and appreciation for all is a sign of a healthy community—one that understands the deep benefits of its diversity work.

Does this work sometimes feel uncomfortable? Boring? Annoying? Accusatory? It may. These are things we need to talk about. With each other. With people outside the community.

Because diversity not only makes us better people—it also makes us smarter and more successful.

Data supports the cognitive benefits of diversity: Research done with college freshmen and high school seniors examined how students’ experience with diversity in college improves their critical thinking.

The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014 study shows that students who are enrolled at campuses with stronger acceptance of diversity tend to realize greater benefits from interacting with other races and ethnicities. Among these benefits are diversity-related skills, such as “ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective or openness to having their own views challenged.”

The business world has also embraced diversity and its direct ties to corporate success. From a recent Forbes article: “The business case for diversity has never been more front and center than it is now…and why not? Basic economic theory suggests that consumers will correct for a company’s lack of diversity by simply not spending money there—making slow-to-change organizations extinct.” The writer goes on to point out: “Perhaps most exciting, top workplaces are approaching diversity problems with a more forthright, open tone. A long recognized best place to work, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ diversity division is led by Maria Castañón Moats who proclaims on their company webpage, ‘At PwC, we believe in confronting the hard realities—and then doing something about it.’ Then there’s a Clorox corporate blog post which aptly rationalizes, ‘…If you cannot answer the diversity question clearly and favorably when it is asked in the recruiting process, young people are going to choose to work elsewhere.’  These examples represent a more resolute stance compared to the old days of corporations simply valuing difference or promoting a tolerant environment.

Research fully supports the need for diversity and inclusion, but the research doesn’t say that it is easy. Diversity work is bumpy, uncomfortable, messy and imperfect. But we have to talk about it—honest conversations help us move forward.

These are times that, more than ever, we need to remember our school’s mission to increase our students’ knowledge, compassion and ability to thrive in the world.

How could we be St. Luke’s without a passion for and dedication to diversity?


In Honor of Madison

Sadly, there’s been no shortage of follow-ups to my last post about depression and anxiety in young people. I hesitate to share this latest, as it will leave you heartbroken. But where will we be if we don’t continue this dialogue?

Madison Holleran could easily be a St. Luke’s student. Bright, accomplished, athletic, beautiful and—seemingly—Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 3.07.19 PMvery happy. She had an adoring family and what appeared to be a dazzling future ahead. In January—halfway through a “successful” freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania—Madison jumped to her death.

Her family has been admirably outspoken about suicide prevention (you may have seen Madison’s Dad on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel). In honor of this courageous family, I share Madison’s story—which could be any child’s story.

May is Mental Health Month. Kudos to Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, Camille DeMarco-Havens, and the St. Luke’s Student Council who developed activities designed to turn down the pressure knob (during what can be a particularly stressful time of year). Yesterday, Upper Schoolers ran around during a good old-fashioned recess period. The next few weeks include a nature walk, a group meditation, yoga and dance. The goal is simple: Have fun and relax a bit.

Small but worthwhile steps in a much longer journey.

P.S. My thanks to Stefanie Ciaccia who shared Madison’s story with me.

Update: This just in from Ginny Bachman: NPR’s On Point—Teenagers: The High Cost of Success. Worth a listen. Features guest speakers including psychologist Madeline Levine.



A March Reflection

Over the break I took a quick glance at the superb “News & Views” page of the St. Luke’s website (kudos to Nancy Troeger and her team).  The headlines included a story about the three seniors selected as National Merit Finalists and another about the Yale Dean of Admissions who will give a talk for St. Luke’s parents on May 7th.  I also attended conferences of national scope in the last month where St. Luke’s faculty led sessions on important topics.  At OESIS, Jon Shee, Matt Bavone and Michael Mitchell showed how they are using new thinking and tools to deepen students’ learning, and at NAIS Stephanie Bramlett presented on the reasons why PhD holders are increasingly finding independent school careers attractive.

These examples reflect great news in our School:  Students and faculty asserting and distinguishing themselves on the national stage for academic and professional excellence.

Of course we should celebrate and nurture these developments—but we must not forget our obligation to care for the social and emotional health of our students.  Producing moral, resilient, productive, and persistent graduates does not happen by prioritizing achievement over learning, accolades over effort, winning over goodness, metrics over the unmeasurable but essential daily work of building a healthy, inclusive community.

That is why I sought recently to engage fathers in a conversation about our role in the emotional health of our children.  That also is why we put such an emphasis on building an inclusive community—not to be politically correct but to help all students in both divisions become their best selves through deeper understanding, honest conversations, and the hard work of true collaboration.  And that is why we give students more relevant and purposeful learning experiences such as J-Term, the Hackathon, service learning, global partnerships, and portfolio-based courses such as Engineering—which seem to leave students feeling more joyful about their education, less anxious and depressed although they have worked every bit as hard, or harder.

It has been a very good year for St. Luke’s.  I feel so pleased with the spirit of wanting to be the best we can be, with the strengthening of people and program, and with the reputational excellence that continues to drive such strong interest in the School.  I also feel pleased that the social and emotional health of students continues to be a distinguishing hallmark of our school.  We do not have all the answers, nor can we claim a perfect record in helping every student lead a healthy life at St. Luke’s.  But we can claim to care, and to prioritize what’s best for kids in our curriculum development, hiring, and future thinking.  That’s what makes St. Luke’s a great school, and what makes it a place worthy of our committed service.

Above & Beyond in Action

Preserve and Innovate. Shame on us if we choose one over the other. We have a dual need. So we hold preservation and innovation in our two hands. In one hand we hold what is essential, proven, and timeless about school—that “personal element” we all value so highly. And in the other, a culture of collaboration and innovation that enables us to be a school of the future, and in fact remain a school in the future.

This opening from my State of the School presentation comes back to me often. And with it, questions.  Are we continuously examining our structure, our teaching methods, and our assumptions? Are we asking ourselves, is this the best way to teach today?

Three January initiatives fill me with gratitude for the extraordinary faculty who enable me to answer those questions with an emphatic yes.


The first January, or J-Term, just came to a close for our ninth grade.  J-Term began, as Liz Perry outlined in our On the Horizon video, as a question: How would we teach if we didn’t have the traditional confines of set class periods, separate subjects and tests? In response, a talented group of teachers came together and launched an eight-day, immersive learning adventure. Students worked in teams on an array of human rights issues (homelessness, illiteracy, clean water, women’s rights—to name a few). They employed design-thinking, learned how to create a plan of action, interviewed experts and conducted extensive research on and off campus.  

As important as the knowledge gained, new levels of freedom and responsibility drove deeper understanding, self-directed teamwork, and commitment to action. In Liz Perry’s words, “We wanted to stretch their comfort zones…Discomfort is growth.” Read more about J-Term.


Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 11.19.34 AMSt. Luke’s first Hackathon also took place in January. Center for Leadership Director Jim Foley and Upper School Science Chair Michael Mitchell were the mad scientists behind this creativity-packed weekend. Jim’s blog, including a video from our Marketing & Communications team, captures the Hackathon magic better than I ever could. Suffice it to say, young minds expanded and a new SLS tradition was hacked.


Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, Director of Diversity and Upper School Student Life, and Grant Russell, Director of Academic Technology, launched St. Luke’s second annual Social Justice Leadership Summit. As I said last year, this summit creates a lifetime experience. This year’s attendance doubled and nearly all of last year’s attendees returned. The word is out: St. Luke’s Social Justice Leadership Summit is not to be missed. Read more about the SJLS.

If I can persuade an attendee or two to share their personal thoughts, I will feature their voices right here next week.

My deep gratitude to the Above & Beyond teachers who put heart and soul into creating exceptional experiences for our students.

Feeling Alive: Blues Band

Welcome back to the Hilltop. Today’s post was written on November 21, 2014,  minutes after watching the Blues Band perform. I held onto this because I knew a video (below) of the concert was on its way. Enjoy the post and especially the music— it will start your new year on a great note.   

My eyes welled up.  Again.

Not only again.  For the thirteenth straight year.

By the second song of the Blues Band concert, overcome by the talent, courage, and joy of St. Luke’s students and teachers making music on the Seldin Performing Arts Center stage, I wept with my own joy.

As a first-year head of school thirteen years ago, I didn’t know what the Blues Band concert was, or what to expect from it.  Now, even though I have seen it every year, it still reaches deep into me and reminds me why I love our school.  No other school that I know of does anything remotely like this concert, always performed for students on the last full class day before the Thanksgiving break.  Nothing reveals more vividly the power of teachers and students collaborating and creating together.

And nothing reveals more vividly the power of gifted and devoted leadership, with the combined efforts of Bob Leinbach and Peter Valera inspiring both students and teachers to push their limits.  I feel a blend of awe and gratitude for these two teachers, as do their students.

Blues Band is no diversion, not simply an easy way for us to give students a break from demanding academics.  Blues Band is about learning and everything that goes into learning.   Teamwork.  Effort.  Risk-taking.  Creativity.  Passion.  Practice.  And, not least, Blues Band is about feeling alive.  Why shouldn’t we do that in school?  You put in the hard work and sustained practice to learn an instrument, to develop your voice, to learn a song, to push beyond any amount of ability or courage you thought you had.  The payoff: a performance that elicits joy, community, and appreciation.

To say nothing of a grateful head of school.