When prospective families visit the Holderness campus, some of them feel it. Our students know it. Our alumni might refer to it as that Holderness feeling. While completing his tour of New England boarding schools, one Oregon alumnus discontinued the remainder of his school visits once he saw Holderness. Both he and his family knew he had found his home. His four years as a student only reinforced that first impression.
But what is “it” exactly? What makes the warm, comfortable feeling notable? Our admission director might say that students will make eye contact with you in a way that feels different from other schools. One Boston-based mother told me that her daughter, a new ninth grader, says that kids are kinder – much kinder than the independent school she came from.
Here are the things that make Holderness stand out:
Our location – a small college town nearby, the White Mountains minutes north, Squam Lake, and the full bounty of the Lakes Region just south. We start celebrating our location the minute new students arrive by taking them on orientation hikes, canoe trips, and town tours.
Our size – we are a small school (with a big heart). We intentionally keep our enrollment below 300 students. Our advisors mentor no more than seven advisees, our classrooms typically have ten students or less, and our dorms have eight students per resident faculty member.
Our faculty (really, all of our staff) - combined with our size and our intentional programming, we become a community where everyone is seen, known and, well, loved. Our head of school knows each student by name within the first week of school as do most of our teachers. Beyond that, our faculty are passionate about teaching and helping students learn. It’s true many have advanced degrees and continue to learn more about their subject matter, but working at Holderness is not a job, it is a vocation.
Academic rigor lives here – it often goes without saying that our academic rigor sets the platform for classroom learning; but if you take a look from a student’s perspective, you might see more. You might see that flexibility and tailoring to needs is a hallmark of our academic offerings – one student might be in a class by herself studying linear algebra because she has progressed beyond what is typical and her curiosity propels her further. A teacher might discover that several rising seniors have heard she has expertise in art history, has taught it previously and they would like to take advantage of such an elective. A biology teacher and an English teacher might decide to team up to teach a course where both the scientific method and nonfiction writing are examined through the lens of nature.
Designed, non-traditional learning - we build upon traditional classroom rigor and, at winter’s end, spend two weeks pursuing grade-based learning that enhances self-knowledge, global awareness, and collaborative skills: 9th grade – community service, away from campus 10th grade – exploration of the arts, on-campus 11th grade – winter wilderness survival, orienteering, and leadership training in the White Mountains 12th grade – senior thesis, self-designed learning exploration, anywhere in the world that is part of a capstone course taken as a year-long course as a senior.
Leadership – Holderness doesn’t elect our leaders, we choose them by their actions and deeds. Since 1951, using fairness, initiative, dependability, and empathy as the key characteristics of leadership, our entire community comes together in the spring to evaluate all rising 10th and 11th graders on each of these attributes. Our leaders are chosen by their deeds and not their rhetoric.
While these factors matter, it is the feeling within the community that makes the IT. Head of School Phil Peck will say, “we are intentional about how we build community – it’s purposeful.” This fall, the intentionality of building community took on many shapes. Here are a few snapshots:
An extended orientation – Going on a two-day hike or canoe trip in a small group starts the building of community. With two faculty members and two senior leaders, small groups of eight to ten students share camping chores, listen to new voices, giggle around the campfire and appreciate natural beauty. With the comfort of this small group bolstering their courage, the students return to campus and learning from student leaders and faculty members continue in new small groups, typically advisee-based. Conversations about courses, athletic choices, chapel talks, rules of conduct are interspersed around fun and short class schedules. This orientation week creates the learning canvas for the students as citizens of our community.
Weekly Assemblies anchor our community – We come together on Friday mornings to talk about the weekend and to highlight key elements of our learning program. We may have a speaker telling us about their professional journey, an alumnus or a friend of the school. In a recent assembly, the following occurred:
Our school president opened with a few inspirational words to help us make the most of the year.
Weld Hall leaders read a rousing endorsement of “Worker of the Week” and sent the recipient of the recognition a t-shirt delivered with a giant slingshot!
Music Director Alec Sisco revisits the long-standing “Quinn the Eskimo” making sure everyone is singing and maybe bobbing to the tune.
Perhaps because of the family-style meals, tennyball tournaments, the caring for others, our invigorating chapel program, or the amazing school nights featuring the HolderNotes or musical and theater performances, the “it” of Holderness carries forth through the generations of students. It is intentional, it is about community, it is Holderness.
Albert Bierstadt, the German-American painter renowned for his landscapes of the American West, came to the White Mountains to capture its simple yet overwhelming beauty. What came to life through nearly a decade’s worth of work was The Emerald Pool, a massive oil-on-canvas monument to the natural majesty of a hidden swimming hole along the Peabody River in the Pinkham Notch. Recounting The Emerald Pool, Bierstadt said, “I never had so difficult a picture to paint, as this White Mountain subject the Emerald Pool; my artist friends think it my best picture and so do I.”
At Holderness we deliberately build community through the people we bring in and programs we support. Today I want to share one story about people who showed us what it means to be a mission-centered community and talk about one unique program that is hitting a milestone.
Kicking off its 141st year, Holderness School welcomed new students to campus on September 5th. Under blue skies and surrounded by the cheers of joyful Senior Leaders, 114 new students eagerly joined the Holderness School community. The day was filled with smiles as new students and families unpacked their cars and turned dorm rooms into a home away from home.