Looking Back and Forward: A Student-Centered Vision for the Future of Rivers

Head of School Ryan S. Dahlem shared a bright and exciting vision—for students and members of the Rivers professional community alike—highlighting the future of The Rivers School at Monday’s all-school assembly. Dahlem opened with an extended moment of silence in honor of the victims of 9/11 and their families on the 22nd anniversary of the tragic event. He went on to  thank the community for an “amazing first week of school...the energy, the excitement, the engagement were so inspiring for me to see.”
Invoking a phrase he has uttered often since the start of his days on campus, “Connection Before Content,” Dahlem shared with students the question he has heard most frequently since being named the new head: “Why Rivers?” A number of reasons floated to the top, he said, including the fact that the school’s philosophy of Excellence with Humanity resonated so deeply with his own. Additionally, he emphasized the importance of relationships and that education is a human enterprise. “It’s about all of you,” he said, gesturing to the audience, “and that’s why it’s Rivers for me.” 

Dahlem also touched upon Rivers’ culture of innovation, calling the school a “place that is on the move” and adding that balancing history and innovation has fueled its “institutional trajectory.” To illustrate the latter, he took the audience through a photographic timeline, showing the evolution of Rivers from its early days as an open-air school founded by Robert W. Rivers in 1915. One such photo showed students bundled against the cold in special warming sacks. “Imagine what it was like back then,” said Dahlem. “The students had inkwells that would freeze, and they would have to chip away at them to get ink to write in class.” Fast forward to 2023, where 525 students enjoy a sprawling campus that boasts 55 acres and state-of-the-art facilities on Winter Street in Weston. 

“What’s next?” is the other question Dahlem hears often, and it’s one he’s particularly fond of answering. What he loves about Rivers, he says, is that “we are still hungry for what comes next.” He took this moment to lay out the roadmap for designing the future of Rivers in three phases and what these steps mean: The AISNE self-study and accreditation process; strategic planning; and strategic plan implementation. The self-study process occurs once every 10 years, and Dahlem says he welcomes the opportunity to “take stock and think about who we are now and who we want to be moving forward.”

Dahlem explained the notion of design thinking, an approach that studies and prioritizes the needs of the end user and designs solutions around them. “Students, you are our end user and the reason we are here,” said Dahlem. “We want to design around you. Students can be involved and have a voice in this process by completing surveys, participating in follow-up interviews and focus groups, and allowing an adult to shadow you during your day.” 

Dahlem wrapped with more advice from his nine-year-old son, Colin, who told him on his first day: “Be You.” The third grader’s second piece of advice is “Make Rivers a Dream School.” While Colin’s idea of a dream school involves building a play structure in the middle of Lank Quadrangle, Dahlem noted his own hopes for Rivers: “A place you look forward to coming to each day. A place where you feel seen and heard and a sense of belonging. A place where your learning matters to you. A place where you are challenged and supported. A place where relationships, with adults and peers, are prioritized. A place where later in life, when faced with a decision, a challenge, or an opportunity, you’ll pause for a moment and say, ‘What would Rivers do?’ Those are my hopes, but we need you to help us create your dream school at Rivers.”

Dahlem left no doubt that he has big dreams for Rivers—and that he’s eager for the community to share in realizing those dreams.