First Day: Dahlem’s Tenure Gets Under Way on Opening Day

“Happy New Year!” The calendar may still read 2023, but that was the greeting offered by Head of School Ryan S. Dahlem at an all-school assembly on the first day of school this past Tuesday, underscoring the excitement of launching into both a new academic year and Dahlem’s tenure as head.
As students and the Rivers professional community gathered in Kraft Dining Hall, excitement, anticipation, and some first-day jitters were evident. This was Dahlem’s first opportunity to address the entire group, and the crowd was perhaps a bit unsure what to expect. But Dahlem set the tone by sharing that he, too, was feeling the nervous excitement of his own first day, and he quickly sought to put new and returning students—and faculty members—at ease with a special welcome for newcomers, seniors, and sixth graders (whom he identified as the Class of 2030, to a wave of startled murmurs). 

“I’m so excited to see the full student body—finally!” Dahlem exclaimed. “You are the reason we are here!”

Dahlem demonstrated self-deprecating wit and relatable candor as he shared his thoughts on the year ahead. As he often does, he invoked the philosophy “connection before content,” adding that “schools are built on relationships, and Rivers is very, very good at creating relationships.” He said research has shown that students learn better when they feel a sense of connection and belonging, and that he will prioritize making those connections as he gets to know the Rivers community. 

Connection, of course, is a two-way street. Dahlem shared some information about himself—including a photo of his participation in an ’80s cover band, complete with a Members Only jacket—and pledged that as he learns about the community, the community will also learn about him. 

After Dahlem’s remarks, student body presidents Jack Renaud and Leila Saponaro, both Class of ’24, introduced themselves and shared a few thoughts about the coming year. 

The day had begun early, with a “welcome committee” led by members of the Class of 2024 assembling at 8:00 a.m., ready to greet arriving students. On this sunny and unseasonably warm day, the energy was palpable, with high-fives, shouts, and dancing backed by a lively soundtrack. 

Upper School students got right down to business, with Tuesday serving as the first day of classes. In the Middle School, students started their week with three days of Leadership Lab, which serves as an opportunity for these younger students to form connections with one another and start to understand community norms, expectations, and opportunities. 

Of course, the bonding process for Middle School and Upper School students alike had begun the previous week, with the grade-level orientations. Each grade level participated in age-appropriate, fun, and sometimes challenging activities that prepared both new and returning students for the year ahead. Grade 6 and Grade 7 students gathered on campus, while Grade 8 students went slightly off-site for an orientation at Camp Nonesuch. For the Upper School, orientation could mean anything from team-building exercises at a local YMCA (Grade 9) to the traditional and much-anticipated white-water-rafting trip for seniors. 

These orientations, where students had the opportunity to bond and connect in outside the classroom, set the stage for this week’s return to school. At the opening-day assembly, Dahlem concluded by sharing the insight his nine-year-old son, Colin, had offered when asked if he had any first-day advice for his dad. “Just be you,” Colin suggested. Sound advice, concluded Dahlem, for himself and for the assembled students as they head into a new year of learning, growth, and self-discovery.