Q & A with Francie Irvine: The Making of the Centennial Book
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Former Assistant Head of School Francie Irvine is writing a book on New Canaan Country School’s history as we reach our 100-year milestone. She has spent nearly a year working in the school’s archives and conducting interviews in order to complete the first draft. We caught up with her recently to ask her a few questions about the process.
Q: As you were researching for this project, what surprised you about the school’s history? What did you, personally, learn that you hadn’t known before?
I was surprised by the commitment and daring of a group of New Canaan parents who had the imagination - if not always the resources - to found a school that would be right from the outset a place for children to be active participants in learning. The Community School and NCCS employed teachers who believed in a creative balance of academics, arts, and athletics; they encouraged students' thoughtful curiosity about the world around them. I had always suspected, but grew to appreciate even more, that the school has been an educational leader by grounding students with the academic skills they need to succeed while encouraging them to develop equally important character traits and sense of community.
Q: What do you think were the pivotal turning points in the school’s history?
It seems to me that aside from the inevitable influences of world and national events - the Great Depression, WWII, the Civil Rights movement, the upheaval of the sixties, the fall of Communism, the rise of materialism, the spread of technology, to name but a few - the appointment of a series of school heads who seemed just right for their era permitted the school not only to weather difficult times, but also to remain committed to its mission.
Q: What interesting artifacts have you found in the archives?
What was most fun for me was reading student work, because it revealed to me what students have thought about through the decades. The Frogtown Monthly, Ponus Papers, classroom newsletters, The Keys, The Column were full of stories and articles about daily life and concerns, some of which were unique to the times - WWII rationing, for example - or which echoed over the years - the pleasure of dogs on campus, the importance of the break for lunch, great rapport with teachers.
Q: How has the school changed most over the past 100 years? How has it stayed the same?
The obvious changes in the last hundred years involved location and size. The Community School was located in town, and was really focused on the community of New Canaan - though there were some students from other localities. After the move to Ponus Ridge in 1936 NCCS became a more regional school. It grew quickly, which required constant building programs and fund raising, along with raises in tuition, and ongoing concerns about providing fair salaries and benefits to faculty and staff.
If time travel were possible, it feels to me as if a student in 1940 would feel at home in a 2015 classroom, and a member of the class of 2016 would feel comfortable in a 1940 classroom, aside from shifts in dress, slang, and media. The educational philosophy of the school and the quality of student-teacher relationships have remained constant over the years.
Q: What do you hope the current community will learn from reading your book?
I hope that dipping into the book will help parents take the long view, and gain in confidence that the school has an amazing track record of graduating competent and successful young people of character. I hope that teachers and staff who read it understand how they are part of an ongoing tradition of excellence, and that they have been and are valued. I hope that any students who read it will realize that their stories and questions count, and become part of the fabric of the school's culture and history.
Q: When will the book be available? And, any hints about the title?
The book will be available for the centennial celebration in October 2016. Alas, no title - I haven't thought of one yet!!