A graduate of Dwight School himself, Blake Spahn’s passion for its mission to “ignite the spark of genius” in every student has been reinforced now more than ever. During the pandemic, he saw that the need to pivot and bring in new methods of doing things is crucial to success in our ever-changing climate. And he is confident that his close to 1,000 students will be able to apply the skills they learn in Dwight’s classrooms when they are outside their Upper West Side doors and in real-world situations.
When COVID hit, Dwight administrators had an advantage over many institutions in that they were able to look to their campuses in London, Shanghai, Seoul and Dubai for best practices on how to safely reopen. And as one of the first private schools to start a curriculum fully online, they already had a virtual component in place with Dwight Global, which was created in 2014 to enable talented students to pursue dreams in fields such as acting or sports, but took on new meaning in 2020.
As a third-generation educational administrator, Spahn fondly refers to Dwight School as “a family affair.” His grandfather was head of school at Franklin which later became Dwight, his father has been in the role since 1967, his wife runs its lower and middle school admissions and both his children are current students. When asked what that’s like, he said there’s “nothing nicer” than getting to walk to work with his children. “I used to get in trouble when they were younger because I used to pretend that I was fixing the air conditioner and spend a lot of time in their classrooms,” he explained. “Now they usher me out.”
When it came time to reopen, you took notes from your network of schools in other countries. What was that process like?
In New York, we had the benefit of having our schools in other countries going through this before us. Our school in Shanghai closed in January due to COVID and they actually opened up in late April. Our school in Seoul closed in February; they opened back up in May. And then our school in London shut in April and opened in June. All of those schools opened successfully and none had a case of COVID. We ended up doing a number of Zoom calls with all of the heads of schools in New York state as well as some other states, helping them understand why our schools in these countries were able to open successfully. And for us, we took those lessons, and thought it was a no-brainer to open in late August. The COVID case count was low from a percentage basis in New York. And our view was, in the worst case, even if we had to shut down in a week, at least the kids would be able to bond with their teachers and one another. The older kids can adapt and do extremely well online, but the younger kids, they really need to be in person.
What safety measures were put into place?
It was not easy. We worked the entire summer. Hats off to everyone from the administration to the facilities team to the school nurse. Over the summer, when they were hoping to get time off, they were working 12-, 15-hour days. So nobody had a break. The teachers were preparing themselves to be able to go into this hybrid model. We spent well over a million dollars in COVID preparation. We had to socially distance classrooms, so very often, that means new types of furniture. We had to completely revamp our HVAC system. Imagine every single room, classroom, office, bathroom, we had to install air purifiers with UV and HEPA filters. We had to do things like increase our maintenance staff. We were supplying PPE to all of our community. It was a massive undertaking.
Your father, Stephen, serves as the school’s chancellor. What’s one thing you learned from him that you use in your work?
He’s getting close to 80, so I try not to have him come in every day, particularly with COVID, but he’s calling me at 5 or 6 a.m. every day. Whether it’s a single student or a revolution coming in education, he’s so alive with that. He wants to die at his desk and he will. My father and I have respect for one another and what we do and we have literally never gotten into it, which is crazy. Now have we disagreed on things? Absolutely. He’s built this institution brick by brick, so I have such a respect for what he’s done. We have wonderful dialogues and always come up with the right answer, I think. The important thing I’ve learned from him that I try to impart on every student and my own children is that the most important thing in life is not how much money you make, but it is all about finding something you love as a vocation. And if you enjoy your vocation, you never work a day in your life.
You graduated from Dwight in 1989. What has remained the same and what has changed since then?
When I went there it was on the East Side, on 67th Street. It started in seventh grade and ended in twelfth grade. You’re talking about 350 students when I was there, and now we’re a school of almost 1,000 that goes age two until twelfth grade. We did not do the IB [International Baccalaureate] curriculum when I was there. I wrote a book called “America and the International Baccalaureate.” What excited me to spend so much time on that project and my doctorate was I couldn’t believe the change in culture that a curriculum could make in a school. When I came back to visit and teach at Dwight, I was blown away that even the teachers who taught me were teaching differently. When I was there, they taught the content, if you had a good memory, you learned it, you took a test, and did well if you had a good memory. Now, students are really applying knowledge and not just learning it to take a test.
As for your alumni, there’s such a diverse group of people who’ve attended Dwight. Do any come back to mentor current students?
Governors, mayors, actors, the Strokes - almost the entire band went here. What I love about Dwight is it’s so inclusive. You don’t have to take a type of test to get in. We look at each child and if we feel we can get them to their full potential whether they’re a mediocre math student and they’re going to form an amazing band or become a famous actor or governor. We have an interesting program called Spark Tank, which is exactly like “Shark Tank,” except our mentors are much nicer, and they’re made up of very successful alumni or parents. Alumni also come back and do what we call Spark Talks, like the founder of the app Waze and one of the top people at Google have come to speak to the kids.