Incoming Head of School Ryan Dahlem Returns to Rivers

It was back to school last week for students—and back to Rivers for incoming Head of School Ryan Dahlem, who paid his second extended visit to campus to meet with various constituencies in the community from March 27 to 29. Dahlem was accompanied by his wife, Anne, and the Dahlems took the opportunity to further acquaint themselves with the community ahead of their July move to Weston. Dovetailing with a busy admission session, the visit advanced Dahlem’s immersion by broadening the focus to current and newly admitted families.
The visit began on Monday with meetings with board president Alan D. Rose, Jr. ’87. Falling as it did shortly after admissions decisions were announced, the week afforded a few opportunities for Dahlem to meet with prospective families. One such event was Monday night's admitted student dinner for families of color, where the attendees heard from a number of speakers, including trustee and alumna Louise Cummings ’98. Cummings talked about her journey as a student at Rivers, where she was encouraged to try many things: drama, jazz singing, cross country, and soccer, and how her experience helped her “craft her voice.” For her, this set the foundation for her years as a lawyer and community advocate.

Tuesday brought a full slate of activities for the incoming head of school, including individual meetings with senior administrators and joining a meeting of the full administrative team. Mr Dahlem also enjoyed lunch with Grade 8 students Chase Bugbee, Alison Lieva, and Jalen Morris. 

Lieva summed up the lunch meeting afterward: “During our conversation with Mr. Dahlem, a few eighth-grade students tried to highlight some key aspects of the Middle School and provide details about our personal experiences as students in the Middle School. Mr. Dahlem was very open to feedback and advice about what it’s like to join the Rivers community.” 

The focus stayed on the Middle School throughout the afternoon. Dahlem attended the weekly division meeting, where students were given their first opportunity to connect with the new school leader. Middle School Head John Bower said, “It was wonderful having Ryan back on campus this week. Just before spring break, Middle School students, faculty, and staff wrote notes to Ryan introducing themselves and sharing what they loved most about Rivers, and we had the opportunity to present those notes to him during our weekly meeting—along with a swag bag of Rivers gear, of course!” 

Dahlem had a chance to visit two Middle School performing arts classes—of particular interest to the new head, who is also a trained musician. In the jazz band class, the students, who were just back from spring break, reviewed a familiar song to get back in the groove. Teacher Bill Jones reports that the students were rehearsing lively jazz standard “Jordu,” and making “excellent progress.”

“As Mr. Dahlem was leaving, he told the kids they were doing a great job and that he looked forward to seeing them perform and getting to know them,” said Jones. “I was impressed with how comfortable he made us all feel. He was extremely positive, down-to-earth, and upbeat.”

In Tom Marks’s Middle School chorus class, students were working on a new piece called “Vox.” Marks went on to explain,“Ryan arrived at the point in the rehearsal where the kids started putting everything together. Ryan really got to see my students work with a new piece of music; he got to watch them figure out how this new piece sounds and functions and how it fits into their voices—the very earliest stages of the learning process.” 

That evening, a reception was held in The Revers Center, introducing Dahlem to the Rivers parent community. Nearly 200 guests met and mingled in the lobby and the Baldwin Family Art Commons, delighted once again to reconnect in the post-Covid period. A show of student art had just been installed in the space, adding color and energy to the setting. Rose gathered the audience and introduced Dahlem, highlighting his professional and personal background and his decision to choose Rivers amidst multiple headship offers. Dahlem took to the podium to welcome the crowd and give parents a brief overview of his approach, which centers on relationships, the student experience, and innovation—all highly aligned with the school’s philosophy of Excellence with Humanity. Those long-held and cherished Rivers values, it appears, will remain firmly in place under Dahlem’s leadership.

Bright and early the next morning, Dahlem met a group of Alumni Council members. Council President Alex (Krotinger) Lisavich ’04 remarked, “We greatly enjoyed our breakfast with incoming Head of School Ryan Dahlem this week. Ryan has been incredibly intentional about how he spends his time during these visits, and we were thrilled he advocated to spend time with alumni. During our discussion, we got to hear about what attracted Ryan to Rivers and how he plans to navigate his transition and first few months at the school. We are energized by Ryan and his commitment to Excellence with Humanity.”

At his request, Dahlem also met with a group of Grade 11 students to hear about their experience and hear their hopes for their upcoming senior year. Students shared insights on a variety of topics, including the relationships that make Rivers special and their excitement about the many milestones that mark senior year. 

Dahlem found time to visit a couple of Upper School classrooms before lunch. Mary Mertsch’s sophomore English class is about to launch into Sages & Seekers, the hallmark Rivers program that pairs students with senior community members for a weeks-long deep dive into the life experiences of the “sages.”
“I thought it would be fun to practice interviewing Ryan with some of our questions,” said Mertsch. “The students asked him his biggest fear (not living up to his potential), his biggest pet peeve (hypocrisy—well, and also people crinkling food wrappers during a performance), one of his favorite movies (Forrest Gump), the luckiest thing that ever happened to him (being born to his parents), his biggest life lesson (the importance of family), and a few others. Although the students might have initially been a little nervous about having him visit our class, they seemed to enjoy getting to know him.”

Patricia Barrios reported that Dahlem jumped right in during her Spanish 111 class. “We were talking and sharing in Spanish about what the students had done during the break.  Ryan was very interested in their responses and he shared that he studied Spanish in high school. Everybody in the class wrote their responses on the board—including Ryan,” Barrios reported. 

That evening, after more meetings with senior administrators, Dahlem attended a reception for admitted families, chatting with prospective parents and students and seeing firsthand the strong demand for admission to Rivers. He and Anne ended the day, and their visit, with dinner, accompanied by Rose, trustee Sheila Hiatt P’21, ’22, ’24, and their spouses. 

It was another whirlwind tour, packed with meetings and events, but it was the classroom visits that provided perhaps the most “Rivers” moments of the week. Mertsch, describing Dahlem’s visit to her English class, said, “Ryan had the chance to ask the students for advice for someone new to Rivers. Charlie Holmes [’25] maybe gave the best response: ‘Just jump right in. We’re a close community, and everyone’s ready to welcome you.’ ”

“What an exciting way to bridge my transition to Rivers,” said Mr. Dahlem. “I continue to learn from current members of the school community and share the excitement of new families as we begin our Rivers journey together. Anne and I are grateful for the warm welcome we’ve received and look forward to fully immersing ourselves in the incredible Rivers community this summer. As Charlie invited us to do, we are ready to jump right in!”