Author Archives: Sally Mixsell, Head of School

Anticipating the IB Diploma Program

As we near the end of February – months since my last entry (I note with chagrin…) – we are waiting impatiently to receive our official authorization to open as an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School next fall.  This is without doubt the biggest initiative in my three years of headship, and we have worked hard to establish this status.  What will it mean to Stoneleigh-Burnham when all is said and done?  A lot, including:

1) SBS will be the first girls’ school in New England to go IB.  We will be the third private school in New England and the third girls’ school in the country to incorporate this program.

2) As a small school, we afford ourselves connection to a worldwide network of other schools and educators with whom we may share ideas about curriculum and experience with the IB Organization.

3)  We will allow any motivated student to shoot for the IB diploma, not just those who have been highly successful beforehand.  [This is a particular favorite of mine.  Young people come into their own as students at various times in their development, and it is gratifying to offer an inclusive opportunity for those who are just picking up steam halfway through high school.]

4)  Our teachers will share a common professional development experience, having been trained to teach in the IB Diploma Program.  To date, all those who will teach an IB course next year have been trained; our goal is to train everyone in the school so we are all conversant in its philosophy and goals.

5)  Our students will be exposed to a solid, multicultural curriculum that has room for differentiated challenges. What we have understood from IB students interviewed at other schools is that they would never change their choice to challenge themselves to complete the requirements for the IB Diploma.  According to them, it is meaningful work that is worth pursuing.

6)  Our students will feel proud of the level of commitment they make and rigorous challenges they work to meet. The Diploma Program  offers a much more integrated, and therefore potentially more meaningful, way for students to understand the world than the AP Program.

7)  Our Senior Project Program will be enhanced by the IB Extended Essay; our Community Service Program will develop more depth by virtue of the IB CAS (Creativity, Action and Service) requirement.

8)  We are continuing our own commitment to internationalism and multiculturalism, creating a clearer vision for the future and securing this perspective in all disciplines.

9)  We will establish a smoother segue from our Middle School to our Upper School as our program for older students necessarily becomes more student-centered (like our Middle School already is).

10) While not all students will strive to complete the diploma requirements, all students will be necessarily affected by the IB as a part of SBS.  We will be changing the way we teach, asking students to write more, think more critically, and process their learning along the way.


– Sally Mixsell, Head of School

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Bullying Prevention and Intervention Policy

As is now widely known, Governor Deval Patrick signed the Act Relative to Bullying in Schools in May 2010. This new law prohibits bullying and retaliation in all public and private schools in Massachusetts.  Each school has been required to develop its own Bullying Prevention and Intervention Policy by December 31, 2010.  The law mandates reporting of any incidence of bullying, cyber-bullying or retaliation witnessed or heard of by adult members of the school community; it encourages students and parents to report suspected cases as well. Further, schools are now required to hold students accountable for bullying situations that occur on OR OFF campus, thereby monitoring more closely the dangerous effects of cyber-bullying that affect a student’s educational experience.

At SBS we now have our plan in place, and on Tuesday, January 4th I presented it to the student body.  The following day all advisory groups talked about the plan and how it affects our community; a spokesperson from each group shared important ideas from her advisory’s discussion at this morning’s Housemeeting. Moving forward into the next steps we will continue in a town meeting format to come to some consensus about how we as a community want to move forward in response to the policy.

Several students approached me after Housemeeting to say how happy they are that we’re opening this broad-based conversation around the issues of mean behavior and bullying. I agree with them.  The advent of this law has afforded us a good teaching tool; helped us clarify language around bullying, cyber-bullying and retaliation; and encouraged our continuous efforts in tolerance, conflict management, cross-cultural understandings.

Our new policy has triggered some great conversation and a lot of soul-searching.  There is much we have to be thankful for in being a small school, not the least of which is the opportunity to know and trust one another enough to report events that are hurtful or mean — as well as take the time to note many random acts of kindness (for some great examples of this, see Laura Lavallee’s blog post).  And still, despite those reports and subsequent conversations, those hurtful and mean moments happen on occasion.  Putting them into the context of being the kinds of moments that, if repeated, can lead to bullying, we are all asked to think about how we can move closer to becoming a community that works even more deliberately together to hold each other accountable for our words and actions. Hopefully, we will come to consensus over the next few weeks and sensitize ourselves to the realization that our “throw-away” words or gestures are not always taken lightly by their recipients.  Hopefully, we will never deal with the kind of pain felt in South Hadley and other communities because of an unaware or insensitive school. At the least, we are doing everything we can think of to work against such a possibility, and the conversation is rich as a result.

– Sally Mixsell, Head of School


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A Tribute to the Emerson Family

When I was a student at SPH and then SBS, Mr. and Mrs. Emerson (the “E’s) ran the school together. They were wonderful, and many of us stayed in touch with them until they died some years ago. When I was a senior Stoneleigh Prospect Hill, we merged with another girls’ school in Northampton, The Mary A. Burnham School, thus becoming Stoneleigh-Burnham. Mr. E’s sister Miriam Peters ran Burnham, following in the footsteps of her mother, Mabel Hood Emerson (ironically, I received the award in her name when I graduated). When the schools merged, Mr. E was the head and Mrs. Peters worked somewhat in the backdrop, orchestrating a fantastic trip to Paris for 5 weeks. I went on that trip, the ultimate inspiration for my becoming a French major in college, and ultimately a French teacher.

By the time I became head of SBS, Mrs. Peters was long retired, but she still lived in the area. Last summer she (and we) celebrated her 100th birthday. On October 29th of this year, 1 day shy of her 100th year and 4th month, Mrs. Peters passed away. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to visit with her several times in my first year of headship. She, like her brother and sister-in-law, has been an inspiration to me, and I marveled with each visit at her sharp mind – yes, even at 100.

Mrs. Peters’ funeral service was a few weeks ago in Danvers, MA at the family burial ground. I only learned recently that she was a descendant of Israel Putnam, Revolutionary War general, and had grown up in the general’s home in Danvers. The Putnam Family Burial Ground is a lovely, serene plot of land now wedged at the crossroads of Routes 1 and 62, behind the state police barracks: a sharp reminder of what “progress” has done to a once bucolic setting. It was a lovely ceremony, punctuated with a program and music that Mrs. Peters had chosen.

Three of my classmates – Deb, Carol and Jennie, as well as a few other Burnham alumnae, also attended the service. Though we felt somewhat like interlopers at this mostly family ceremony, we also represented the school family that Mrs. Peters had raised. I wondered if all those Emersons understood how deeply so many of us students feel about these Emersons, now buried here in this spot for their final rest. We could go on for hours about them, their influence on us, the stories of their families.

I learned that day that Mabel Hood Emerson didn’t start her professional career until she had raised her children. Apparently her husband was about 15 years older than she and he, a very successful manufacturer, lost everything in the Great Depression. Mrs. Emerson, at 52 years old, went to work teaching school. Eventually, she bought a little school in Exeter, NH and named it the Emerson School for Boys.

Mr. E, her son Edward, eventually ran that school before he moved to Greenfield in 1950. While Mr. E was in Exeter, his mother went down to Northampton to look into buying her alma mater, The Mary A. Burnham School. Somehow she convinced a local banker to loan her the money, and sometime later she also bought Stoneleigh Prospect Hill. By the time I came along in the mid-60’s, Mr. E was running Stoneleigh and Mrs. Peters (Miriam Emerson Peters) was running Burnham. Their brother John (now 95 and the last remaining Emerson of that generation) was the long-time business manager for Burnham. He was also instrumental in the family’s opening a summer school, Burnham-by-the-Sea, in what are now buildings belonging to Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. Another brother stayed in Danvers and opened the Putnam Pantry candy shop which is now run by his son.

I thought then, and still think now, that the story of Mabel Hood Emerson is remarkable. Here was a woman who had raised 7 children before she found a career and provided for her family with it. Her children were all well-educated and well-traveled. I remember that Mrs. Peters and Mr. E always took a trip together during Spring Break, usually overseas. Mrs. Peters had studied at the Sorbonne and taught French early in her career; it was her enduring love affair with Paris that inspired our trip there my senior year. Though the family clearly endured some hard times, they also led a privileged life at many levels. Mabel Hood Emerson and her children Edward, Miriam and John left legacies behind that are still felt today at the school and that I am stubbornly committed to perpetuate.

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A Nice Surprise at the End of A Busy Week (and Weekend)

Last weekend we ended an intense week of Admissions Open House, Board of Trustees meetings and Family Weekend. It was all wonderful, but the pace of the week was fast and furious. I went to sleep very early on Saturday night when the campus fell quiet again! That said, I do have some impressions of the week that are probably worth sharing:

  • Open House is always fun. I get to talk about who we are and where we’re going; girls and their parents get to try out this environment to see if it feels right. I love to see the reactions of parents as they try to imagine their daughters in our school, and of the girls interacting with our students. Any prospective student is lucky to have parents who are seeking the right match for the right reasons. We get to do it again on November 11th.
  • Going through Family Weekend in Year Two is so much more gratifying this second time around! Finally, I know most, if not all, of the parents and can interact comfortably them. I love talking to them about their children’s growth and development, and now that I’ve been here for awhile I have witnessed that growth first hand and can speak about it specifically. I remember going to a soccer game last fall, chatting up what I thought was an SBS father on the sidelines — only to discover in short order that his daughter was on the opposing team! A real first year foible. By contrast, this year I have only had to work at getting to know the families of our new students. A nice change.
  • I have to comment on our performing arts presentation that happens perennially on Family Weekends. This fall the performances were particularly impressive, given our scant 5 weeks of practice before the performances. Kudos to the arts department for inspiring our students to such heights in so short a period of time. I’m still singing Fly Me to the Moon in my head and remembering Quincy’s strong voice belting it out. We all imagined we were in a smoky cabaret at midnight — and it was only 1pm in the afternoon!
  • Our Board of Trustees is terrific, and the school is fortunate to have so many people who care so deeply for it. They worked hard through their two days of meetings, and in between sessions emerged to interact with the school community. Formal dinner on Thursday night was a lot of fun with the students, and coffee and Richardsons’ chocolates were served after dinner in the Blue Room for trustees and faculty/staff. Delish. Since my arrival last year we’ve brought on four new trustees in all, two last year and two at this most recent meeting. All told, they bring expertise in finance, investment and development, key areas of our work these days. I am grateful for the support and guidance this board has given the school.

I headed off for Boston the Monday after Family Weekend in order to attend the Heads’ Summit sponsored by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. It was a day at the Simmons College School of Management with other girls’ school heads, focusing on strategic thinking and goal setting related to finance. While these sessions, led by two Simmons professors, were interesting and timely, it was just as edifying to share experiences with our fellow heads of school. Many of them I already knew, but there were several others there who were new acquaintances.

I went back in to school on Tuesday, and Kate – a new ninth grader and alumna daughter – made my day. She sauntered into my office and presented me with this, her own rendition of our school logo:

I’m still not sure how she did it with such precision, but it now adorns my front stoop and is lit up each evening for all to see. These are the little moments that make a day fun. They are the things that define a place and are so hard to quantify when families come to find out what we’re about. Kate went home to Vermont after her parents came for Family Weekend, but she still was thinking about Stoneleigh-Burnham while away. That’s when she carved her pumpkin. I love that.

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Early Impressions of the Year

We’re at the end of our third full week of classes, and it feels – in good ways – as if we’ve been here for months. I thought I’d fill this entry with quick snapshots of some the moments we’ve experienced.

  • We had an alum speaker at one of the first Housemeetings. She had just returned from a two-year Peace Corps stint in a Senegalese village and shared photos and insights with us.
  • Natalie (academic dean) had her baby! Jack Hudson Demers was born on September 21st and is now home learning how to live with two huge dogs…
  • A rousing 64 students and faculty have volunteered to walk for cancer research. We’re divided into teams and will be doing some fundraisers in order to have the money needed to participate. I feel very proud of the number of our students who’ve come forward to help, and I have to say that my team is the best! No favoritism, of course…but we have already made jewelry and cookies to sell.
  • In the middle of week 2, Mina Cooper, director of riding, Regina Mooney, director of development, and I traveled to Charlottesville, VA for an alumnae event at Hyperion Farm, owned and operated by alumna Vicky Castegren. It was an incredible event on an incredibly beautiful piece of property with incredibly gorgeous horses. Vicky showed us some of the babies born on the property and demonstrated what she looks for in a good horse. We are thrilled that Vicky has agreed to run a clinic at SBS on February 20th! Among a few others we met while there was my classmate Karen van Lengen who has been dean of the school of architecture at UVA for the past 10 years. It was wonderful catching up and catching her up; Karen has agreed to come speak to our students sometime soon as she is currently on sabbatical.
  • At the Fall Horse Trials, our seventh grader Franny was remarkable getting people to buy SBS items. She even approached one guy to suggest that our water bottle would match his car well!
  • Two of my advisees wanted chocolate chip cookies for our advisory period snack this week; one wants potato salad! I accommodated both requests…
  • I heard great feedback about one of our new teachers. The girls love her class and think she’s a great teacher. (I passed along the kudos.)
  • While we go through our daily routines, some of us are behind the scenes working on finalizing budgets and planning for next year’s dates.
  • We are also planning for the upcoming Board meeting and have just added two new members and two new trustees emeriti. Great additions!
  • We’ll be “testing” a new format for our Family Weekend this fall — putting the arts performance on Friday afternoon so parents may take their daughters out for dinner and/or overnight.
  • Past parents Vicki and Jeff Palmer hosted a wonderful cocktail party at their home in Greenfield to which all current and past parents in Greenfield and neighboring towns were invited. It was wonderful to meet so many enthusiastic people and to have the opportunity to tell them what we’ve been up to at SBS.
  • I was just AOD this past weekend and witnessed Friday night Laser Tag on the first floor and video games in the Red Room on Saturday night. Lots of crazy fun…but lots of girls in the library working as well. Sunday was a quiet day filled with room clean-up and study time, though there was a college fair some of the girls attended.
  • Our Chinese teacher has finally arrived! After more than a month of going back and forth with the Department of Homeland Security, we secured the permission for Chia-Jung (Sara) Tsou to get her visa. Sara just finished her master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, but she is from Taiwan and had to go back in order to do this paperwork. Her students are ecstatic and we are all SOOO happy she’s here! She made a big hit last Thursday when she offered us Moon Cakes during our weekly faculty meeting; it is time for the Moon Festival in Taiwan and China so she brought these goodies to share with all of us. She’s a smart woman!
  • Next thing you know, it will be time for Mountain Day so stay tuned!

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The New School Year

It’s hard to believe that we just opened the year and that I am embarking on my second year as head of school. Of course, I know so much more this year! And that includes people — it feels good to welcome parents and students back to school and be able to call them by name. I’ve had multiple returning students talk to me about their commitment to making the year a positive experience for all. It is equally wonderful to see all the new families who come with great enthusiasm and expectation of a super year. I don’t think we’ll disappoint.

Something happened as we opened the year. It started at the faculty meetings when I could feel our hulk of a ship start to turn; we were all heading in the same direction and it felt good. With the work we did last year around how we view ourselves and the language we use to talk about the school, we were able this fall to present where we are to the faculty, first, and then to each set of parents as they registered their daughters. Finally, I shared it all with the students at Convocation. We will do the same with the trustees when they are here in October (though they have been kept abreast of our conversations along the way). We know where we’re going; we know what we’re about; and we know that we like it. That feels very good!

As we went through registration days, Convocation, and then bonding trips and pre-season, the buzz among faculty has been what a great student body we have. The girls have worked to know each other and to get ready to start working in all kinds of directions. One girl came in my office last night to say that she LOVES the new schedule (kudos to the scheduling sub-committee of last year). Several of the new international students, most of whom don’t get to see the school before they arrive, have remarked that they are so lucky to be in a place that’s this beautiful (wait ’til the foliage season!).

No more time for a longer entry. Suffice it to say that we’re off to a great start!

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