Headmaster’s Thoughts – October 2007

A little history:

At the end of my second year as an undergraduate studying law at Oxford, I came to America to be a sailing counselor at Tripp Lake Camp for Girls in Maine. Jayme was a swimming counselor. I continued working there for several summers, and, after Jayme and I started York Prep in 1969, we worked as associate directors of the Camp until 1981.

This camp experience has been instrumental in shaping the way York Prep is run. Camp, that very American institution, is a place that reflects what might be called “old world” values. Good camps help build character through friendly competition and intense interaction with bunkmates, in a setting where campfires are not considered “hokey”. A good camp director knows better than to disappear behind closed doors, knows that keeping the same administration and counselors gives a sense of stability for campers, and that the most important activity they can do is to constantly be among the campers helping foster the camp’s mission.

We have a mission at York, too, and I try to be everywhere at once in order to fulfill it–available to students whenever they want to see me, ensuring that our administration is the most stable there is (it has been unchanged since we came to the “new” building in 1997), making retention of faculty a key priority, and working to instill character values within the community. It is well known that I do not actively fundraise, that there is no outer and inner office (you walk into my office or any administrator’s office from a main corridor), that I teach, that I have refused to allow our phone system to be automatic with those horrible “prompts” (when you call York Prep you get a friendly person answering), and that I have stressed to our students that they are our real “clients” and that they should take responsibility to work with us to solve problems if they arise.

I like to think that we are somewhat unique. That we are a strong academic institution that provides an outstanding curriculum but always with the understanding that our clients are adolescents and not adults, and that one should push appropriately but never ruthlessly. School should be a happy experience. Learning should be a pleasure.

The difficulties of this approach to running a school in New York City may be obvious. At Tripp Lake in Maine, the parents were far away. Here, they are here. Before we have time to speak to a student, the parents may be charging through the front door, eager to solve the problem in the way they think is best. In Camp, cell phones do not work, campers cannot spend money on clothes or electronic toys because there is nowhere to buy them, and the bunks do not have air-conditioning. Camp is a simpler world and is protected from the sexualized hype of contemporary marketers that seem to abound in our great City.

Camps survive and prosper because their campers and parents trust them. Schools should be no different. We have been around long enough (this is our thirty-ninth year), for us to be able to say, in this celebrity and designer obsessed culture, that we stand for character values in a traditional sense, that we treasure our students, and that pride in our community (as I suspect this piece is really about) is perfectly fine.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section In the News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.