NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — It's not always easy to find your community, where everyone has their own unique and respected seat at the table.
Some students will spend their whole high school careers trying to locate that group, maybe not finding it until long after they've already been through college and a career.
There's no need to wait that long, though, to find your path, your community, your self: The Darrow School is looking now for a new cohort of bright, artistic, athletic and inquisitive students to join a school community that lives, learns and works together.
Head of School Andrew Vadnais says the private college-preparatory high school is built on Shaker values, most important being work ethic, and gender and racial equality. The prep school is a launching point for many different kinds of students who attend four-year colleges, from small art schools to major universities.
Students began to arrive on campus this past week in staggered groups, says Vadnais, all part of the school's plan for a safe and healthy re-opening.
"We wanted to open in person. We needed to open in person. Darrow is a face-to-face place," says Vadnais.
The grade 9 through 12 co-educational boarding and day school serves about 100 students, with 85 being boarders and 15 attending from local communities.
Three new Centers for Excellence
These promising students are served by 45 Darrow staff and faculty, who this year will be launching three new Centers for Excellence, designed to focus students' learning around their interests and abilities, while also preparing them for future success in college, commerce and as leaders in the art world and civic life.
"Darrow will help you identify your talents and hone them, and then watch as you use those talents to help others," says Vadnais, a teaching veteran of 38 years in private schools.
The Center for Musicianship and Performance, the Center for Academic and Personal Enrichment, and The Center for Art, Design and Innovation are similar to a college concentration or minor, the school says, not solely about academics but rather deep, personal dives into specialties.
Center for Musicianship and Performance
The Center for Musicianship and Performance will offer regional guest artists and experts for students to study with, as well as a related curriculum, even some with local flavor, such as the legacy of Woodstock.
In this program, students will be learning to produce and perform, to prepare for bringing their talents to the world, in front of and behind the cameras and soundboards.
"It's for pre-professional students, working on portfolios, their demos and auditions. It depends on their area of interest. Students can get ensconced in this curriculum and go for it," says Kristen Kaschub, the school's director of admissions and enrollment management.
Meeting with these experts — Billy Keane or Wanda Houston, for instance — encourages not only student talent and aspirations but also the building of relationships with these remarkable members of the community, says Kaschub.
Whether it's a visiting potter, furniture maker, set or costume designer, or musician, the experiences offer a path for a student to engage in for a day, a week or the rest of their lives, she notes.
Center for Academic and Personal Enrichment
Meanwhile, at Darrow's Center for Academic and Personal Enrichment, faculty help students learn how to learn, academics and life.
Together, teachers and students will explore what the individual's learning style is and then tailor a program accordingly.
"I wish I had a program like this when I was their age," Vadnais says. "We created a center here for students who haven't had the best academic experience, for whatever reason. Darrow is a great place for them to find themselves."
Open to all students, the CAPE program aids those with mild to moderate learning differences, to help them find success with a traditional course load, but with added supports, such as evening study hall or 1:1 strategy sessions.
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Center for Art, Design and Innovation
The Center for Art, Design and Innovation will focus on graphic arts and design, web development, animation, game design, robotics and coding.
Students will have the opportunity to engage with the community through visits with practicing professionals, museum exhibitions and college programs.
In this program, the use of problem-solving, the structures of science, and the visual arts' creative freedoms are aimed at students producing more robust and more unique projects and designs, the school says.
"The subjects studied here are not only interesting for many students, but we are giving them the tools and the opportunity to think outside the box to solve the problems of the future," says Kaschub.
The Centers for Excellence aren't solely cold marble halls of knowledge: Darrow builds elements into its programs that foster the students' emotional growth and well being, too.
"It's important for schools to help students educationally, but if you're going to do the academics on the high end, in this day and age, it's also important to help kids find joy," says Vadnais.
Entrance into the Centers for Excellence isn't mandatory, and students can always pursue Darrow's core curriculum, notes Vadnais.
COVID-19 and the school year
Whether it's virtual classes, which began after March's extended spring break, or the wearing of masks on campus now, life has changed for the students, notes Vadnais.
However, what's remained consistent is what Darrow does for its students and their families, he says.
For example, with it being their safest choice, 16 of the school's international students stayed at Darrow through the spring, and four of them also stayed through the summer.
Hailing from Taiwan, Spain, Dominica, Senegal and Serbia, "They were in lockdown with us," says Vadnais.
Prepping for re-opening
Vadnais says Darrow staff learned a lot during the past several months of the pandemic. All staff and faculty received a stipend to continue their work in the summer to prepare for the 2020-21 school year, "to reinvent the curriculum for maximum impact if we had to do it virtually," says Vadnais.
Faculty broke off into groups, investigating the best computer-based learning management systems, such as Google Classroom.
For the benefit of students and faculty, another group looked into how to mitigate the social and emotional fallout from quarantine and the fear that's been engendered by the coronavirus, says Vadnais.
And a third group mapped out the school's medical protocols, based on federal guidance, to keep students and staff safe. Medical consultation was provided by Dr. Mike Gerstenfeld, chief medical officer for Integrated Medical of Danbury, licensed in Connecticut and New York.
Among the changes, the school's nurse's office has evolved into what closely resembles an urgent care center. Also, about four international students and others have decided to continue their Darrow schooling remotely. Further, some of the day students have opted to be boarders, while some of the boarders decided it would be better to stay home, notes Vadnais.
"Because of the work we did this summer, we were prepared to offer this option for students. We have a blended model of in-person and remote learning," says Vadnais.
The start of school
This week, students began showing up at Darrow, with no more than 20 arriving at once, says Vadnais. He says everyone needs a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test taken within 72 hours of arrival, and then get another test when they arrive.
"We keep them in their car for the test, and then they go right to their dorm, where they'll stay for the next 36 hours until test results come back," says Vadnais. Once on campus, that's where the students will stay, says Vadnais, and everyone is masked and observing CDC recommendations, such as social distancing.
Kaschub adds that, ideally, the hunkering down on campus will last for a semester, and if the world successfully opens up more, "we can open up more. Our intention is to create our own little bubble here and keep students safe."
When they occur, outings might include taking over an indoor soccer facility, a restaurant or a mini-golf course for an afternoon, she says.
Meanwhile, online and on-campus activities have been boosted, the school administrators say, to keep students together, engaged and happy. Picture s'mores and movies under the stars, pizza parties or game nights, Kaschub says.
"The beauty of being at a boarding school right now is that we have the capacity to do that," adds Vadnais, speaking of the school's 365-acre campus.
A Darrow board member even donated 100 Adirondack chairs, making great perches for relaxing, studying or watching the seasons turn.
There's increased interest in health and wellness, for disciplines like yoga, while the athletic programs have received waivers for the season for their regional conferences; it's given Darrow the time to redo the gym floor. The school's 2019 championship-winning basketball teams are still practicing, and there's cross country available, but there will not be the usual competition with other schools, says Vadnais.
Diversity and social justice
Darrow students come from New York, the Berkshires, the rest of New England, as well as various states and other countries. Its diversity creates a global connection for everyone at the school, and also the local community.
"We take pride in exploring and celebrating everyone's culture, traditions and values. Learning about our students is a way to get to know our community on a deeper level," notes Vadnais. "We're an incredibly diverse campus of students and faculty, in many ways, ethnically, racially, socially, economically."
He says the international students bring their favorite recipes from home, which student work crews bring to life every Wednesday with a school community meal.
Moreover, with its Shaker roots, Darrow always has been involved in social justice, long before the murder of George Floyd by police in March. The entire Shaker way of living stands for racial and gender equality and embraces intentional communities based around agriculture.
While a small school, there's space for Black and Jewish student alliances, a spectrum group, as well as a diversity board. When the U.S. erupted in protest, Darrow students were still at home, so meetings took place online and in-person with students and staff "to make sure they were OK. It's built into the curriculum now, to try to help them understand what is happening, and to stay and feel safe."
`Everyone is welcome'
The beauty of Darrow, says Vadnais, is that students "are in this environment, where everyone is welcome, respected and treated with grace."
Darrow aims to give students the tools to approach any situation after they graduate, help them express their identity, speak up for what's right, and approach injustices in a positive way.
"What we're trying to do here is give them that foundation," says Kaschub.
To get a sense of what that foundation is like, schedule a visit and tour, she says.
"There's a power of this place and space, and I want people to experience that," says Kaschub.