An Evening of Community and Connection: Charting the Path Forward at Rivers

The Rivers School held an evening event for parents and caregivers, “Community and Connection: A State of the School Update,” on Wednesday, February 7, providing an overview through a range of lenses: strategy, governance, finance, development, academics, and more. The speakers painted a picture of an institution on an upward trajectory, building on the momentum of Head of School Ryan S. Dahlem’s first six months at the helm.

Following a brief reception, with music provided by a string quartet of Conservatory Program students, Dahlem addressed the crowd of more than 200 gathered in Kraft Dining Hall. He emphasized that, above all, the evening presented an opportunity for connection, a cornerstone of his leadership approach.

Dahlem walked attendees through his six-month reflections, including the five primary goals he set for himself this year: To immerse himself in the Rivers community, to engage in professional development as an educational leader, to study the challenges and opportunities at Rivers, to lead the AISNE accreditation process to a successful completion, and to develop a timeline for long-term institutional planning, including the development of the school’s next strategic plan.

In service of the first goal, Dahlem said, he spent time over his early months at Rivers shadowing both Upper and Middle School students throughout their school day. “There is no better way to understand the school than through the eyes of a student,” said Dahlem. He added that he has also met with more than 100 members of the professional community for “Roundtables with Ryan.” These discussions, he said, “have helped me understand their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the future of Rivers.”

Dahlem also addressed the admission landscape and underscored that demand for a Rivers education is strong. The school’s admit rate was 34% for fall 2023 admission and is tracking similarly for fall 2024. The school’s commitment to financial aid also remains strong, with 29% of students receiving $6.8 million of tuition assistance for the 2023-2024 school year. Dahlem also added an update on college admissions, noting that 99 percent of students in the Class of 2024 have been admitted to at least one college at this point, including some of the most selective colleges and universities in the country. But he said what stood out most was the length of the list, with a wide variety of institutions that demonstrates Rivers’ individualized college counseling program committed to matching students with best-fit colleges. 

Dahlem reiterated that Rivers is embarking on its next chapter from a position of strength, and that the essence of the school—Excellence with Humanity—resonates strongly across constituency groups. He shared survey results showing that the great majority of respondents in the community believe that Rivers places equal emphasis on both values and that an impressively high number of students say they’d be extremely likely to recommend Rivers to a friend. 

Dahlem concluded his opening remarks by noting that “while Rivers is 109 years old, it doesn’t act its age.” He has been impressed by the school’s ability to be innovative and nimble while maintaining its best traditions.

Board President Alan D. Rose, Jr. ’87 then shed some light on the four primary functions of the board of trustees. 
  • To ensure that Rivers delivers on its mission of “preparing its students for leadership in a world that needs their talents, imagination, intellect, and compassion” 
  • To hire and support the Head of School in pursuit of the mission
  • To approve the school’s long-term strategic objectives 
  • To ensure that Rivers maintains a strong financial foundation
Various board committees, said Rose, oversee everything from facilities to finance to governance to diversity. The board works closely with Chief Financial Officer Jon Wasserman ’88, P’18, ’21, he said, before making any financial decisions—a segue to the portion of the program detailing the school’s financial position. 

The financial report was prepared by Wasserman, but, as he was unable to attend, his portion was presented by Dahlem. The presentation highlighted two central takeaways: That Rivers’ board and administration aspire to manage the school’s overall finances through a student experience-centered lens, and that, as a non-profit organization, Rivers creates a mission-oriented, balanced budget each year. 

Like most independent schools, Rivers sets a tuition price that does not cover the total expenses of running the program. Tuition covers roughly 85% of the school’s operating expenses, and the remainder is filled by auxiliary revenue and two important philanthropic channels: the annual fund, which typically covers 7% of operating costs in a given year, and a draw from the endowment, covering about 3% of costs. 

That in turn led to the next speaker’s topic. Krissie Kelleher, P’22, ’25, Rivers’ associate head of school for development and external relations, reviewed the fundraising landscape at Rivers, painting a picture of a strong and generous community that routinely steps up to provide the support the school needs to make the Rivers experience available to all students. 

Echoing Wasserman’s sentiments, Kelleher noted that Rivers is “a lean, financially responsible institution.” Kelleher, who led the record-breaking FutureMakers campaign that concluded in 2021, having raised $67M in five years, spoke of three fundraising “buckets”: the endowment, capital gifts, and the annual fund. Kelleher noted the opportunity to grow Rivers’ endowment relative to other local independent schools, and underscored the importance of annual giving, sharing that in the past 10 years, the Rivers Fund has grown from $1.8 million to $3.2 million in fiscal year 2023. She spoke of the school’s impressive participation numbers from various constituencies, including trustees, parents, alums, and professional community members.

Finally, she made a brief mention of Rivers’ Giving Day, noting the goal of 525 gifts—one for each student—before introducing Head of Middle School John Bower and Head of Upper School Melissa Anderson P’25, ’25 to talk about programmatic and academic updates from each division. 

Bower, taking the stage first, emphasized the need to make learning relevant, a key factor—perhaps the key factor—in “creating a joyful and engaging (and sometimes messy) learning experience.” 

Why is relevance so important? Bower tied it to the specific developmental needs of this age group. “We know from the research on adolescent development that intellectual development at this stage of adolescence, while not as visible as physical, is just as intense,” he said. “Students at this age tend to be curious and want to learn about topics they find interesting and useful.” Bower shared student survey data from a science course showing 100% of students strongly agreed that the teacher connected skills and concepts to the real world. Bower also highlighted the expertise of humanities faculty who redesigned a unit in the Grade 7 curriculum in real time last fall to incorporate the unfolding Middle East crisis. 

Bower concluded with a slide showing students literally supporting one another as they climbed ladders as part of an outdoor-education retreat earlier this year. The ladder, he said, might symbolize what goes on in Middle School classrooms: “Our teachers construct the opportunities—to take on a challenge, to collaborate, to problem-solve—and, like the person at the bottom of the ladder, they provide the support. But ultimately the students need to lean into the discomfort, take the risks, and do the work that gets them through the challenge and solidifies their growth.”

The ladder also serves as a metaphor for the collaboration between Anderson and himself, he said, as he invited Anderson to the stage to talk about the Upper School. 

Anderson’s message was clear: While the Upper School curriculum is rigorous and places great demands on our students, the hard work is undergirded with community, connection, and support. “Learning starts with belonging; rigor should be embedded in joy; students need oxygen to grow; this is how Excellence with Humanity should look at Rivers,” said Anderson.

She shared a pie chart illustrating how students typically divide their time during the school day.  Anderson described coming modifications to the program, such as reducing the size of Grade 9 wellness groups and shifting the emphasis in the Grade 10 Foundations course to amplify direct engagement opportunities. She touched on new offerings that increase curricular enrichment, such as a creative writing program launched this year and a pilot program for 11th graders in life science research leading into a Grade 12 advanced science research seminar. “Always,” she concluded, “we’ll strive for responsible program growth in the context of our core mission: to provide an excellent learning experience for our students, humanely and thoughtfully delivered.”

With that, Dahlem returned to the podium to speak about laying the groundwork for the school’s next chapter. He shared a graphic that enumerated the inputs that will inform the next strategic plan, including the AISNE accreditation process, a market research study, a campus master plan refresh, a mission and core values review, and a strategic planning summit next fall. Dahlem presented a broad timeline for these efforts, culminating in a finalized strategic plan in the spring of 2025.

As Dahlem looked toward the future, he noted the wisdom he’d gleaned from an early conversation with student-body co-presidents Leila Saponaro ’24 and Jack Renaud ’24, who advised him to “make Rivers even more Rivers.” Dahlem concluded by sharing his excitement about being at Rivers and invited community members to join in the aspirational journey ahead that will continue the school’s remarkable trajectory. Dahlem closed the program to applause with a spirited “Go Red Wings!”
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