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Phillips Academy

The new head of Phillips Academy in Andover sees technology as the crucial link between the school’s traditional principles and its exciting future. By Andrew Conway - Photographs by Bob O’Connor

At face value, it appears an unlikely pairing. One of the most respected private schools in America appoints a new headmaster who has never held that title before or even worked in a secondary education role. But Phillips Academy is no ordinary high school and John G. Palfrey is no ordinary scholar.

The 39-year-old academic, professor, and author, who is only the 15th head since Samuel Phillips, Jr. founded the Academy (also known as Andover) in 1778, comes with more than a decade’s experience at the apex of higher education to guide the school into the next phase of its 234-year history.

“What I’m most excited about is that Andover has amazingly rich traditions and deeply held principles which I share but [it] has always been willing to lean into the future in terms of innovation and modernizing the role of education,” he says.

“Core values-non sibi (“not for self”), goodness and knowledge, youth from every quarter-form the bedrock of Andover. How can we build on these precepts to prepare students for a world marked by globalization and innovation? Andover is the kind of place that can ask and answer these questions and it’s very exciting to think where those conversations can lead.”

A recognized authority on the impact of digital technologies on education, the co-author of several books on the subject, and a former professor at Harvard Law School, Palfrey sees technology playing a crucial role in achieving his vision for the school and has chosen ‘Connected Learning’ as the theme for his first major initiative.

“Kids are learning differently in this digitally mediated era and through various devices,” he adds. “How do we think about these forms of connection, are they pieces of positive learning, what are the things we have to help kids ‘unlearn’ if they’re actually becoming more distracted or don’t have good communication skills, and equally importantly, how do we unplug from this highly connected world to allow for relaxation and quiet contemplation?

“I want to draw out a spirited conversation among the faculty, staff, alumni and students and ask the question of us all: What does the best possible education look like in the 21st Century? It’s a huge question but one we have to keep asking and seeking to answer.”

Palfrey has arrived at a prosperous time in the school’s history, fueled by a deeply passionate faculty and staff and a richly diverse student body, which is a testament to Phillips Academy’s constitutional mission of “youth from every quarter.”

This year marks the start of the school’s 235th academic year with an enrollment of more than 1,100 students-split almost equally between boys and girls-who come from 46 U.S. states and territories and 36 countries.

Much of that student diversity is thanks to Andover’s unique and critically acclaimed need-blind admission policy, implemented in 2008, which removes financial need as an obstacle for admission.

While academic ability and character remain key determining factors in the initial admission process, once a student is accepted, he or she will not be refused admission because of the family’s inability to pay the substantial annual school fees of $34,500 for day students and $44,500 for boarders.

More than 500 pupils-almost half the student body-currently receive some form of financial aid from the school, from grants to full scholarships.

Director of Financial Aid and Interim Dean of Admission Jim Ventre, who graduated from Phillips Academy in 1979 and, after a career on Wall Street, returned to help shape the policy, says the $18 million budget for financial aid is a commitment by the school to ensure the broadest geographic, racial, and socio-economic student body each year.

“For us, it’s about access,” he says. “The buildings, technology, and facilities are wonderful, but what makes this school special is the diversity of our student body and faculty; the two work hand in hand.”

Student/teacher ratio is 5 to 1 and the average class size is 13. The school offers more than 300 courses in 15 departments, as well as eight languages, including Chinese and Russian.

While the historic campus covers 500 sylvan acres, close to Andover town center, boarders and day students live and learn in five ‘clusters’ creating intimate and dynamic communities where they can further hone their social and communication skills.

Most of the faculty also live on campus, serving as dormitory counselors, academic advisors, and/or coaches, providing students with a fully engaged, caring, and nurturing support network, which, as one instructor commented, makes the teaching “more fully human.”

For 18-year-old Drew D’Alelio, who graduated this summer and can now put ’12 proudly next to his name, his four years as a day student at Andover have been a life-changing experience. “Most of my teenage life has centered around the school,” he says. “I love it, I feel like it’s my home.”

D’Alelio has accepted an offer from Northwestern University in Chicago to study journalism and business but expects to keep the strong friendships and connections formed at Andover throughout his life.

Phillips Academy’s ever-growing community of alumni, which stays connected via sophisticated social networks (and even a mobile phone app) managed by the school’s Alumni Affairs Office, offers students the chance for extraordinary global engagement through alumni-run programs, often aligned with the school’s motto, non sibi.

One of several initiatives is the Niswarth Program, launched in 2004 by academy instructor Raj Mundra, which immerses a dozen students for three weeks every June in disadvantaged communities in Mumbai, India.

Partnering with local schools, NGOs, guest speakers, and Andover alums working in Mumbai, the program provides students with a multi-dimensional learning experience far from the protected sanctuary of Phillips Academy.

English instructor Catherine Tousignant ’88, one of the faculty support team on this year’s trip, said the experience encourages students to be more meaningfully connected with the wider world. “We teach listening, resilience, persistence, collaboration, and mindfulness,” she says, “all great skills to carry forward in life.”

Palfrey says he is fortunate to take the helm of a school in excellent shape, describing it as a “superb platform from which to move forward,” and readily admits that following in the footsteps of retiring Head of School Barbara Landis Chase after her highly successful 18-year tenure will be a formidable task.

“Her legacy will carry on for a very long time,” he says, “but her single most important decision was the need-blind admission policy which sets Andover apart from all its peer schools and will prove to be a major marker in the school’s history.”

With his investiture scheduled for September 23, Palfrey and his wife, Catherine, have been settling into Phelps House in the heart of the campus with their two young children, Jack and Emeline, getting to know students, parents, and faculty, and laying the groundwork for his new Connected Learning initiative.

Were Samuel Phillips alive today, what would he make of the fledgling school he founded in 1778? “He’d have an iPad and be totally connected and psyched about what he’s seeing,” says Palfrey. “What more could he have wanted than a school in amazingly good shape, with an international reputation, a deeply passionate community, and the most talented kids you could imagine at the heart of it. This is an institution at a great moment in its history, and I think he’d be delighted with the way it is flourishing.”