Uncommon Commons

A place for learning to thrive in the world

by Will Lindner

vt-commons0317In 2014, a national recruiting firm encouraged Dexter Mahaffey to apply for the head-of-school position at Vermont Commons, a 115-student independent private school in South Burlington. It has been his dream job.

Vermont Commons, a 115-student independent private school for grades six through 12 in South Burlington, has a vision for education and for human potential as big as all outdoors.

“We are all part of, responsible for, and have a direct impact upon our world,” its “Guiding Principles” declare. “Productive citizenship requires that students thoroughly understand how their local and global communities work. … With the world as classroom, lab and shop, lessons are forever linked to vivid personal learning experiences.”

These are not sentiments. They are concepts, put into practice. And that they can resound even in young minds was revealed when a boisterous group of children gathered outside the door on a recent chilly morning, waiting to be admitted, and amidst the chatter one young fellow could be heard asking another, “Is infinity even or odd?”

This is what Dexter Mahaffey was looking for in 2014 when he applied to become the fifth “head of school” in Vermont Commons’ 20-year history. Mahaffey, who was born in 1971, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. An almost-native Vermonter (born five weeks after his parents moved from Putney to Rochester, New York), he attended Middlebury College, graduating in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and sociology. While a student there he was active in a summer program called Summerbridge (now known as the Breakthrough Collaborative), an academic enrichment program for inner-city kids in Louisville.

“These are programs for kids at high risk for not completing high school,” Mahaffey explains. “They feature classes in the morning and a summer camp experience in the afternoon, with the hopes of getting them into advanced programs in high school and then on to college.”

The outdoors component, in Mahaffey’s view, was elemental — for exercise and to incorporate environmental learning. But also for confidence building. Crucial, too, was the broadening experience for the students of seeing, touching, and learning about other places and cultures.

His first job after graduation was a year with Sierra Designs, an outdoor company in Berkeley, California. From there, he would teach a year in Palm Springs, California; six years at two schools in Kentucky; a year in Washington state; two years in Colorado; three years in Asheville, North Carolina; and a year in Portland, Maine, before landing back in Louisville as director of diversity for a thousand-student private school.

“The school made a huge commitment to diversity,” he says, “but the job meant constantly working against the school’s historic identity, to try to change it.”

This was what he was doing in 2014 when a national recruiting firm encouraged him to apply for the head-of-school position at Vermont Commons. The difference was stark, and enticing.

“You come to a school where the mission is already aligned with your beliefs and your values! When we [Mahaffey and his wife, Era MacDonald] read the mission and guiding principles, our response was, ‘Oh, my gosh! If we could build a school to raise our children in, this is what we would do.’ This was coming to a place where we didn’t have to try to change the school’s identity and culture.” Rather, Mahaffey could bring his expertise to bear on fulfilling the stated mission.

The enthusiasm was shared by Brian Leffler, a local industrialist (vice president of Instrumart) and chair of the school’s board of trustees, then serving on the search committee seeking a new school leader.

“Dexter is young for a head of school,” says Leffler, “and this was his first job at that level. But the advisor, providing a list of candidates, said, ‘Make sure you include Dexter in the final round.’

“I was super impressed. He’s an academic’s academic, but he’s a very, very compassionate leader, with empathy. That works for the faculty, the staff, the students — it works for everybody. And when people meet Dexter, it’s ‘Yes! I want this guy to educate my kid!’

“Now I think the school is the best it’s ever been.”

Vermont Commons School (VCS) was founded by the former Champlain College president Robert Skiff in 1997. “Commons” is a traditional English concept particularly associated in the United States with New England. It alludes to resources, such as land and a commonality of interests, that are shared by the community. Certainly children, and their success and education, are among these.

VCS started modestly: around 20 students in the first year, the rented facilities consisting of a small office space and two classrooms converted from what had been meeting rooms when property-owner George Starbuck based his environmental-engineering firm, Aquatec, there. Gradually, the school grew and took over more of the building, finally purchasing it from Starbuck in 2011.

“Along the way, George was the biggest philanthropist we had,” says Mahaffey. “He would renovate spaces on our behalf, with no expense to us because we couldn’t afford it.”

In 2015, VCS undertook a $1.1 million capital campaign for major renovations and purchased an adjacent plot of land for recreation and outdoor classes. Completed in spring 2016, the building at 75 Green Mountain Drive was renamed the George and Pammella Starbuck Building, an honor Mahaffey was able to impart to George Starbuck shortly before the benefactor died of cancer.

Class sizes are small, optimally around 10 to 14 in a “section.” At different grade levels a class might consist of one section or two, as some students leave — for more competitive sports programs or the social opportunities in a larger student body — and others transfer in. This year’s graduating class, Mahaffey says, will number 17. Though a majority of the students live in Chittenden County, many make the daily trip from towns as distant as those in the Mad River Valley and Grand Isle.

Describing what VCS looks for in its young applicants, Mahaffey frequently uses the term “mission fit.” And he is clear that, while curiosity and intellectual aptitude are requisites — “They have to be able to do the program” — the school has greater ambitions than cookie-cutting future Harvard and Stanford Ph.Ds.

“Peter Goff, our heritage faculty member [Goff has been with the school since its inception] says one of the things we do here is make leaders. And for us, it’s leaders for good. We’re a college prep school in terms of making sure that students are fully ready for rigorous academics and a challenging life beyond college. But we do that with a focus on doing good in and for the world, whether it might be in environmental or social justice [causes].”

To do good in the world, students need to experience it, Mahaffey says. So a fundamental part of the curriculum is “encounter weeks” — a week set aside each fall, winter, and spring when faculty members take students away for experiential learning.

“We just had a group that went to New York City to study the three Abrahamic faiths,” says Mahaffey. “We have trips for performing social services. Jill Strawbridge, our director of admissions, and I just took kids into the backcountry in winter: up the Long Trail; a six-mile snowshoe in Stowe; on Friday we were in a blizzard on Mount Mansfield. We kept hearing from students, ‘I’ve never done something like this before; I didn’t know I had it in me.’

“Right! You have more in you than you thought. So what does this look like when you’re in calculus? When you go out into the world and find challenging situations, you know you can push yourself beyond what you thought you had, and have success and do some good.”

True to his diversity background, Mahaffey partnered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program this year to recruit an Iraqi ninth-grader, doing private fund-raising to cover her required minimum costs. He is pursuing a Ford Foundation grant to expand on that effort.

Liz Shayne, who is head of school at the Schoolhouse Learning Center, a K-8 independent school and childcare center in South Burlington, views Mahaffey as a colleague in the movement. One of her children is a senior at VCS. Mahaffey’s commitment and diversity experience, she says, bring a unique contribution to the area.

“Here in Vermont,” says Shayne, “diversity is a challenge. Dexter is a big thinker and a good collaborator, attuned to the big-picture stuff. And he’s shown himself to be a good on-the-ground leader.”

Meanwhile, Mahaffey, MacDonald, and their sons, Iain (12, and a student at VCS) and Kai (9, who is not yet old enough to attend the school), recently purchased 15 acres in Charlotte, where MacDonald has founded Merrymac Farm.

Their relationship dates back to high school in Louisville, and one reason for Mahaffey’s nomadic early career was that they followed each other around the country as each pursued advanced degrees.

Mahaffey earned his Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition at the University of Louisville in 2013. MacDonald has a master’s in environmental science. Among other things, she ran a native-plant restoration program in Kentucky when they resided there. Merrymac Farm gives her an opportunity to pursue other interests: providing riding lessons and rescuing injured and endangered horses. Not surprisingly, the family’s recreational pastimes are outdoors — mountain biking, snowshoeing, and hiking.

“My wife is probably the stronger environmentalist, and I’ve always been the stronger social-justice person,” says Mahaffey. “But of course, they’re not really separated, especially in this world.”

Nor in the curriculum at Vermont Commons School. •