Small is Beautiful: Vermont Academy Embraces Community | Joel Backon | 10 Min Read

April 20, 2023

After a two-hour drive due north from the Hartford, CT, area, one exits the highway and winds through the hills to Saxton’s River, VT, the home of Vermont Academy for the past 147 years. Many well-established independent schools embrace a narrative of evolving from a traditional boarding school to a more modern and innovative school that preserves their most treasured traditions, and the more they strive to be unique, the more similar their story is to that of their peers. Notably, that’s not the case for Vermont Academy. Their mission statement is simple, brief, and crystal clear. Rather than the puffed-up promises that graduates will become paragons of human perfection, Vermont Academy creates “a nurturing home that inspires trailblazers to advance our world.”

I’ll use the mission statement to characterize the school. The facts and figures are all on their website, so I’ll focus on what I learned while visiting. I’ll talk about creating a nurturing home, sparking inspiration, and developing trailblazers to advance our world.

A Nurturing Home

Yes, I can hear you telling me that all independent schools nurture—a key quality that justifies the price of admission. I agree, but there’s nurturing and there’s VA nurturing. First, how cool is it to know the names of every student? With a student body of 200, teachers that are teaching, coaching, and advising know almost all of the students in a variety of moods and venues. That’s not to say that the same connected relationships don’t exist at larger schools, but here, more adults know more kids. Every adult I spent time with knew every student they encountered that day and had a story about each one. Students appeared very relaxed around the adults and were not afraid to chide them or relate to me a time when the faculty member made a faux pas or had an embarrassing moment. VA creates an environment where students feel safe sharing those details with glee—like parents sharing embarrassing photos with a teen’s date. The teasing was almost familial. I wondered how larger schools could simulate the ethos one feels at the school; belonging is definitely front and center. 

Nurturing is present in the classroom as well. Students learn at different paces, and in the world of well-defined curricula, completing a course and meeting the needs of individual students becomes an elaborate dance. A way to address these competing interests is to increase student choice about how they learn the topic. In Comparative World Cultures, the current topic is sustainability; the skill for this project is developing a literature review. Sound boring? Not in this class. Our teacher nurtures students by encouraging them to choose experiences that hit close to home and are personally meaningful. A resident of Miami, FL, researches how rising water levels will impact their living conditions. A student from Arizona studies the impact of extreme temperatures on energy consumption, and building construction. The Canadian student looks at the future of the logging industry. In my mind, nurturing is about a teacher affirming individual interests, passions, and expectations; and creating an environment where students know their concerns matter and they are smart enough to figure out how to find autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Traditions can also encourage nurturing and build an even tighter community. VA has several annual traditions, but the ever-present one upon my arrival was Winter Carnival. You might assume that VA borrowed the concept from nearby Dartmouth College, but the reverse is the real story. Dartmouth adopted it from its origins at VA. Winter Carnival is a long weekend, but not the type we generally associate with a break from the normal routine. In most schools, those breaks involve sending students home and giving faculty a well-deserved rest or time for catch-up. This weekend at VA is a break and a rest, but not away from school. Students and faculty have the gift of being able to spend time together with a variety of winter activities, both competitive and non-competitive (VA has its own ski jump). Community members are not distracted by their everyday commitments, and thus see a side of each other that might not otherwise be revealed. The school sings a well-known stanza: Whoever you are, whatever you seek, you are special.

Sparking Inspiration

We often ask the question, what inspires kids today? It turns out these inspirations fall into very different categories, and many were apparent at VA. First, and most familiar, is the category of personal passions and interests. We talked about that in the Comparative World Cultures class (yes, examples can cross over topics, sort of like a cross-disciplinary course). Today’s students are fired up about something in their lives, and that energy drives their academic work. During my lunch meeting with 10 students, I was surprised at the responses to my question, what are you most passionate about? None of them mentioned anything about the academic program. Then I thought about all the educators and researchers that argue for meaning and relevance in our lives. That’s why the kids’ answers were skiing, hockey, planting, building, gaming, leadership, and other noble pursuits. At VA, these activities are not extra-curricular, but co-curricular. School Head Jennifer Zacarra later reminded me of Dostoevski’s Underground Man, who argues that progress and the pursuit of knowledge are not inherently valuable unless they contribute to the discovery of meaning in one’s life. There is homespun philosophy to inspire us at VA as well.

In a field biology class, inspiration abounds as students learn by doing, observing, analyzing data, and presenting their findings. The notion of a textbook becomes almost irrelevant. Would you like to read about the sleep and eating habits of specific animal species? Or would you prefer to observe these habits? You might say that because of the varied schedules and difficult access to some of the animals, this is a project that could only be satisfied by books. Enter websites with webcams that are constantly monitoring the activities of these animals. Each student chooses one animal and is asked to collect and graph data that indicate patterns of behaviors. When the teacher asks each student questions that they are unable to answer, she suggests that perhaps they are not collecting the appropriate data or their graph is not communicating the story they intend to tell. She does not tell them the story. They must figure it out. In this same course, living in VT creates the opportunity to understand the behaviors of some of the local animals more deeply not by viewing webcams, but by going outside and following the tracks of these animals. Suddenly, students that dislike science are loving it because they are living it, not reading about it. And how much does such an experience contribute to a student’s personal connection with the teacher?

Developing trailblazers to advance our world

Nurturing and inspiration are so important to student development today. But developing trailblazers to advance our world may be our greatest challenge as educators. First, not everybody believes they are a trailblazer. Consequently, many students are happy to continue the traditions of professions that have existed for many years. They are excited about performing open heart surgery, litigating corporate human resources cases, running a manufacturing operation, or trading on the NASDAQ. Second, most of our schools welcome students with no particular emphasis on specific mindsets. VA likes students that are trailblazers or they will introduce talented students to the idea of becoming one. When admitting students, they seek out those who buck the current “whatever” outlook endemic among students today. They look for passion and risk-taking, which can be nurtured at VA. The teachers are trailblazers as well. Without doing a formal survey, I can say that most of the teachers I spoke with had worked outside the classroom in research or a related profession for some portion of their careers. And it makes a difference when you talk about goals, outlook on teaching and learning, and their view of students today. They focus, but don’t dwell on student mental health; instead using their environment, school mission, program, and pedagogy to lift students out of the hot mess that we call contemporary society.

The students are fiercely independent. It is a disposition that is shared by the Head of School, Jennifer Zaccara. When her father was giving her driving lessons as a teenager, he asked her, “Are you driving the car or is the car driving you?” She never forgot that question and thinks about it during almost every challenge. The most important statistic Jennifer shared was that 35% of VA graduates own their own businesses. That is a staggering number for a prep school, and shows that a school can develop trailblazers by creating the conditions for independent thinking, entrepreneurship, experiential work, and a view of the school as having a public purpose, particularly in the town of Saxton’s River. Students are encouraged to pursue their passions as a means of igniting the rest of their school life.

Within the academic program, VA is promoting trailblazers by migrating from the traditional academic disciplines to integrated STEM and Humanities programs that focus on the answers to big questions that students ponder so they can see a positive future for themselves and their world. The first example I saw was in the mindsets of students in one of their Robotics classes. They were preparing for a FIRST competition, and that preparation was serious, with recurring time trials after multiple design modifications. That is challenging work, but not necessarily that of a trailblazer. One team I watched, however, pondered how the size of the wheels and distance between axles would impact speed and handling around the sharp turns on the track. These are engineering questions for sure, but the interests of this team went well beyond the upcoming competition. As they returned to the classroom, I overheard them wondering how these principles might apply to a real car. Would these modifications in current auto design help them handle better and run more efficiently, particularly electric cars? Being able to transfer a principle from the immediate challenge to a real-world application is one quality of a trailblazer.

It’s About Leadership

After reading this summary, you might conclude that VA is an excellent small school because of its faculty, bucolic location, small size, unique and achievable mission, and very determined students. And you would be right. But no school succeeds, particularly in 2023, without great leadership, and that occupation is not a one-size-fits-all. Different schools have different needs. VA, with all its accolades, needs better marketing, about 30 more students, a bigger budget (a need of every school), and a local community in Saxton’s River that is thriving rather than recovering from a pandemic. 

In order to build on the current strengths and address the challenges, VA has an excellent leadership team. I spent extended time with two members of that team. Greg Martin is the Humanities Department Head and Professional Development Coordinator. I watched Greg teach the Comparative Modern Cultures class discussed above and knew him as the author of several articles for Intrepid including two very popular pieces, here and here. He is always thinking of his students, his colleagues, and the school. Greg has an amazing grasp of the challenges and potential solutions associated with independent schools, many of which he is helping to implement at VA.

Head of School Jennifer Zacarra represents excellence in school leadership. She fits precisely into the characterization that Carrie Grimes described in her inaugural Intrepid article, “People Will Remember How You Made Them Feel.” Jennifer combines soft skills with an acute understanding of her environment and a vision of the school VA might become. One of her professional heroes is Ellie Drago-Severson, a champion of adaptive leadership: being able to respond to and lead for the conditions in which you live. Jennifer is serious about public purpose and the idea that a private school can be the center of a community instead of an alternative culture. She is so serious about that idea that she chose to give up the Head of School’s house on campus and move into downtown Saxton’s River. She is setting the stage for more VA community involvement by becoming an active participant in local decision-making. On and off campus, Jennifer is a leader’s leader.


Some might say that I am cherry-picking unique schools to make a point about the generally sluggish evolution of independent schools. Not at all. I know there are many other great independent schools out there, and they are positively impacting the lives of children in numerous ways. Remember that Intrepid’s mission is one of pushing the envelope so the schools on our radar are those that are doing the same.

Joel Backon

Joel Backon has been the Editor of Intrepid Ed News since its inception in January 2021, responsible for all educator content on the website. He joined the OESIS Network, owner of Intrepid, in 2019 as Vice President. Joel spent much of his career at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) where for 27 years he held founding roles in Information and Academic Technology, as well as being a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, coach, dorm head, and student adviser. Prior to Choate, Joel spent 15 years in the printing and publishing industry educating printers on how to maximize their strengths and minimize weaknesses. He has crusaded to achieve consensus on the question of why we educate kids in an effort to meet the learning needs of every student.

2 thoughts on “Small is Beautiful: Vermont Academy Embraces Community | Joel Backon | 10 Min Read

  1. This article confirms many impressions we had, visiting Greg’s family and VA for 2 days this spring. Great school.

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