History Department Chair/Faculty Member Mark DiGiovanni on how advising a group of students over four years exemplified his own independent school experience
In the fall of 2013, the future graduating Class of 2017 and I met for the first time on our way to Frost Valley, a YMCA campground in the Catskill Mountains, for Ranney’s annual ninth-grade retreat. This was my class*; I had recently signed on to be the advisor for the grade as they worked their way through the following four years, so I was excited to get to know them as we traversed the ropes courses and toasted marshmallows around the bonfire over the next three days.
The annual retreat, held at the start of the school year, is our way of welcoming all incoming ninth graders to Ranney. For those three days, it doesn’t matter if a student is approaching Ranney “Lifer” status (10 or more years at the school) or if it’s his/her first experience at the school. Everyone comes together to experience something new as a group. Students are accompanied by their grade advisors, which allows them to get comfortable with the teachers who will advocate for them, support them, and push them throughout their Upper School years. By the end of the trip, the barriers between the new and returning students are broken down, and the grade is forged into one unified class, ready to face the challenges of the next four years.
By the end of those first three days back in 2013, each student knew that I would be there for them in whatever capacity was needed until they graduated four years later. They were proud to know that their teachers knew them by name, were learning what made each of them tick, what they cared about, and what they wanted to be. This particular group was filled with a mix of athletes and musicians, dancers and filmographers, robotics champions, rowers, guitarists, and equestrians. They had eclectic tastes, and were excited to find that others in the class (and even a teacher or two) shared their interests. By the time classes started, I was already having trouble remembering who was new and who had been a part of our school community their entire lives.
This is a quintessential independent school experience. As a graduate of an independent school in New Jersey, I was immediately reminded by this trip of why I value the community that exists in schools like Ranney. Our small, tight-knit group of students, faculty, and families works together to create a safe and stimulating place to grow up and learn about the world. Students feel comfortable talking to their teachers and advisors about their concerns, and faculty and parents partner to ensure that their children are supported throughout the entirety of their experience. That attention and mentoring outside of the classroom demonstrates that we truly know and value each student’s contributions to the community.
Last spring, my class received their diplomas in front of their families, teachers, and friends. After four years of guiding them through their Upper School years, including Advanced Placement classes, the college process, inevitable social drama, and the big wins and tough losses on the playing fields, they were finally crossing the finish line. As each name was read aloud and the diplomas conferred, I thought about each student’s story: the forensics all-star who produced the school newspaper now heading to Columbia University; the tech-guru on his way to Georgia Tech, without whom no stage production would have happened; the class council member and future Fighting Irish who spent most of her downtime volunteering for one of many charitable organizations; and the dancer, who created and performed a routine interpreting The Scarlet Letter for the class before heading off to Elon to refine her skills. Each of these 82 students impressed me in their own way, and left an indelible mark upon the school. By the time the orchestra played Pomp and Circumstance for our graduates, we, as a faculty, knew that they would be successful and secure in their futures, because we knew them.
My class has moved on now, exploring the world as Hurricanes, Lions, Rams, and Commodores, but that means that a new class of ninth graders is on its way, about to embark on their own Frost Valley excursion. As they settle into their roles as students at Ranney School, I am sure that they will quickly learn how excited this community is to know them and to guide them through the next four years.