By Brad Davis
Our first year at The Stony Brook School was 1986-87. Our second year was 2016-17. Yes, a career bookended by The Brook.
Deb and I arrived and departed SBS the same years as Mike and Debbie Hickey (1986-2019). Of course, Mike and Debbie stayed on after that first year while we accepted a call to serve at Pomfret School, a Connecticut boarding and day school: I as school chaplain, teacher, and coach; Deb as dorm director, coach, English teacher and, eventually, chair of the Religion Department.
As wonderful and formative as our three decades were at Pomfret, we semi-regularly wondered whether we might have a little more Stony Brook left in us. What kept this daydream alive were our memories of that fabulous year at 1 Chapman Parkway. Deb’s main gig at SBS that first year was as Monro dorm parent with Jane Taylor, who was then Dorm Head (at the time Monro was a girls’ dorm). I helped out in Hegeman; taught 7th grade pre-algebra, 10-11th grade Bible, and 12th grade English; and coached middle school boys soccer and varsity girls soccer in the fall (yes, both teams) and girls volleyball in the spring. Together we parented our five-year-old son John. By midwinter, we knew we wanted to stay on at The Brook, and Russell Weatherspoon, the school chaplain, had in mind that I could serve as his assistant in the chapel. But by the time SBS was ready to move on the idea, I had accepted the call to Pomfret.
Beyond the good student work of that first year at SBS—in the dorms, the classrooms, and playing fields—there was the community life. Our young family was assigned to eat at Peter and Jane Haile’s table in Johnston, where we took meals three times a day. I remember well the exemplary faith of the faculty, and that the chaplain invited many of them to share from their faith in Hegeman Chapel. Head of School Karl Soderstrom and his wife Jean led the school with gentleness and grace, while a cadre of legendary teachers and coaches set high standards, personal and professional, for the younger faculty and the student body alike. Additionally, it seemed to me that all the adults understood that every student’s experience of The Brook, especially the boarder’s experience, was hugely dependent upon the faculty’s glad, “all in” commitment to boarding school life. Assistant Head Peter Haile often reminded us during faculty meetings that the smooth, Christ-centered operation of the school—from class prep to stability in the dorms to picking up campus trash—was 100% the responsibility of each employee.
When, over the summer of ’87, Deb and I departed SBS and moved into our Pomfret School apartment, we felt well-prepared to slide right into the boarding life on our new campus. Twenty-nine years later, with miles of Pomfret experience behind us, Jane Taylor (by then the Assistant Head of School at SBS) responded to my semi-regular query regarding a Davis return to The Brook with a “Yes, the timing may be right. Please complete the application and send it right in.”
What we found when we returned to The Stony Brook School was an educational mission whose Christ-centered DNA had not been altered. Yes, the school and we had endured our respective “trials of many kinds.” Yes, the School and we wore a slightly different look—the hair on our heads was a tad grayer and the school’s academic profile had been raised more than a few notches, but the biblical foundation of the school remained the same, the generosity of its Christianity was as welcoming and encouraging as we had remembered, and students were being won to Jesus through the agency of His Spirit and the daily witness of His followers. Indeed, it was good to be back at The Brook.
Three challenges impressed us as we reentered life at Stony Brook: the need to reassert a boarding school identity, the need to develop a strategy for thriving at a time when so many boarding schools our size are fighting to survive, and the need to redouble efforts to make the student experience at SBS extraordinary, especially for the boarders. In order to move on the first of these challenges, a few projects were initiated. As Dean of Faculty Care, I began an occasional e-communication to the faculty to emphasize that, though only 50% of the student body are boarders, 100% of us teachers and administrators are boarding school faculty, and this reality ought to shape the quality of our commitment, especially to those students who are away from home. Practically, this led to a redesign of our weekends, from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, with the goal being two-fold: to bless our boarding students and to enable the faculty to enter more fully into a Sabbath rest.
“The biblical foundation of the school remained the same, the generosity of its Christianity was as welcoming and encouraging as we had remembered, and students were being won to Jesus through the agency of His Spirit and the daily witness of His followers.”
Second, Deb and I were impressed by how much SBS was doing with so little. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing schools our size and at our endowment level is the rapid increase in costs for keeping the doors open, lights on, and students and their families happy. Though fundraising was not part of either of our job descriptions, it became a regular touchpoint for prayer. Thankfully, the current Head of School, Josh Crane, sees and is responding creatively to this challenge. In 1922, God provided SBS with a campus and an exciting vision for the future. Over the last two years, conversations have begun about transforming our Long Island campus through the addition of new, mission-enhancing buildings, and about the prospect of an additional campus outside of Long Island. My prayer and dream for SBS would be a $100 million endowment. Yet even more important than a $100 million endowment is a vision for the future which honors God and His great commission. From decade to decade, God has provided The Brook with the means to grow into the school we are today. To remain a shining light in the secondary school universe, God will continue to provide according to our need.
Finally, the student experience: What’s the purpose of a re-energized boarding school identity and a larger endowment if students are having a lackluster experience? The best PR for a private school is a multitude of alumni who look back with love and gratitude on their high school years and actively share their excitement with their families and friends in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities, and (welcome to the 21st century) over social media. More than ever, buzz matters for a school like ours as families weigh the costs and benefits of sending their children to expensive, non-public schools. To bolster the school’s commitment to improving the student experience, Mr. Crane hired Dustin Mones, a boarding school veteran of many years. As Director of Student Life, Mr. Mones has worked tirelessly with a team of faculty to effect the improvement. For example, coming this fall, the school’s new, cafe-style snack shop in Hollis Student Center will give everyone a fabulous new space for conversation, study, and tasty comestibles. Also on the theme of food, all five weekend meals, from Friday dinner to Sunday dinner, are now welcoming, buffet-style affairs, with Saturday brunch being the “talk of the town.”
Upon returning to SBS, my wife Deb spearheaded one of the most important improvements to the student experience. Having observed an excellent advisory system for three decades at Pomfret, Deb created a new system here that championed two aims: first, to let each returning student choose her own advisor, a faculty who would develop a 360-degree understanding of that student’s SBS experience, and second, to assure that every student, boarding and day, may come to know that they are known and loved at Stony Brook. Over the summer of 2017, the new system was put in place, and one lunch
hour a week was set aside for the advisory groups to meet and break bread together.
As I write this, I am in Putnam, Connecticut, having retired only a month ago with Deb after thirty-five years as boarding school missioners. Our final three at Stony Brook were a perfect way for us to end. Stony Brook is a school firmly established upon the Rock and determined to grow toward and beyond its upcoming centennial celebration with a vision grounded in “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Please join us with renewed prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God for The Stony Brook School.