Since beginning my tenure as Head of School last year, I have asked everyone who will answer to put into words the essential qualities that make Sacramento Country Day such a special place.
Over and over, the word “community” recurs. Faculty and staff describe an Esprit de Corps, and how, above all, “We will know and love your children.” Others talk about the Country Day community as “their second family” or describe the “feeling of belonging to an exceptional place.” However you define it, it is Country Day.
For the 2016 Country Day yearbook, the Medallion, students chose as its theme “Set In Motion.” When you spend time on our campus, you too feel that energy for motion. It is palpable. You will feel it in the recently completed Makerspace and accompanying electives in Middle and High School, the state-of-the-art recording studio in memory of a former student, and in the high school students enrolled in our newly added courses in computer science.
As a school we combine those qualities of community – knowing, loving, and appreciating each and every student for his or her unique gifts, while also providing the finest educational experience in the area, one constantly in motion, looking forward as well as outward. We reach beyond the boundaries of our beautiful campus – Lower Schoolers support our sister Rulindo Schools in Rwanda, Middle Schoolers take annual trips to the coasts of California and to Washington, D.C., and our High Schoolers participate in a new pre-professional internship program, begun this summer.
We do this for our true purpose, just like yours as parents, to prepare children to leave the nest and fly on their own. Like the owl, an early mascot of Country Day and revived for our 50th anniversary, we give your children both wisdom and the wings to soar well beyond their time here on Latham Drive.
As a young man I was fascinated with Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy. One quotation attributed to him reads, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
That’s what we do every day. Our spectacular faculty and staff nurture, believe in, and challenge your children to reach beyond what they know they can do to achieve what they don’t yet know they can do – “the impossible.”
And that is the essence of Sacramento Country Day.
Lee earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard University and a master’s in liberal arts from Johns Hopkins University. Over his 25-year career, Lee has worked as an administrator and teacher at independent schools in Utah, Texas, Georgia and Maryland. He began his tenure at Country Day as Head of School in July, 2016.
Lee is married to Julie Checkoway, author of The Three-Year Swim Club. They live in Arden Park and have two daughters, Abigail, a sophomore at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and Sophia in the Country Day class of 2023. They recently added a mini schnauzer, Tashi, to the family.
The holiday season offers us the opportunity to consider that for which we are grateful. One major dimension for me is that it was just over a year ago that Board Chair Kelley Taber offered me the opportunity to serve as the next Head of Sacramento Country Day School. It is my honor and privilege to work with our students, this talented faculty and staff, and you — what I view as the essential three-way partnership to ensure the best possible educational experience for your children.
This letter is my first report back to the community about my “Entry Interview” process. Through nearly 100 hour-long individual interviews and group sessions with students and parents, I am striving to form a base of knowledge about the school and its core values, strengths, and challenges, in order to begin to shape strategic goals for the future.
In the spirit of the season, this report focuses on the wonderful characteristics of Sacramento Country Day. As I synthesized the thoughtful conversations, I chose to group the responses into three broad categories: Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors. I chose the word “open,” for it acts as both an adjective as well as an action verb. Thus it simultaneously speaks to both who we are and what we do.
Many people began by talking about the community — the warmth, and the family feel. People described Country Day as a “welcoming place,” “like a second home,” a “close-knit environment” with “unpretentious people.” Others described the “friendly little school” as having a wonderful “esprit de corps.”
Some spoke of their admiration for the faculty and staff, many who persevered through a deep and challenging recession yet stayed at a school they love. Others described a place where faculty care about and nurture the whole child — encouraging and celebrating personal excellence in the arts, athletics, and service as well as academics, while also valuing admirable character.
Along with the magnificent faculty, constituents spoke lovingly of the relationships between students and staff and among the students themselves. While much of this was and could be ascribed to small classes, it is significantly more personal. Above all else, we are a community where children feel safe to be themselves and to develop who they are in an inclusive, accepting environment. In short, Country Day is a school where we know and love your children, and they learn to know and love themselves.
And, finally, people valued the sense of public purpose at Country Day. For the school is truly a part of and not apart from the local and global community. We care deeply about giving back to others through a variety of community service activities, among them: Run to Feed the Hungry, the annual Turkey Drive, and our support for the Rulindo Schools in Rwanda and for nearby Dyer-Kelly Elementary School.
Nearly everyone I interviewed mentioned the dedicated and passionate instructors. Faculty and staff celebrated professional and intellectual freedom anchored in professional development and accountability. Freed from a rigid set of public school standards, our teachers seek to always better themselves, to take risks, make mistakes, and grow in their craft.
They also spoke of a shared sense of purpose and how our program powerfully integrates art, music, physical education, the garden, hands-on experiential learning, and explorations that take learning beyond the page and beyond the classroom.
Other elements of the program that are valued include the rigorous and challenging curriculum, strong in the core skills of writing and public speaking, that emphasizes critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving beyond mere content mastery.
Country Day provides a world-class education that makes our students desirable applicants in the college admission process. Colleges want our graduates, and last year alone our 32 seniors were offered over $1.1 million in merit scholarships.
But a Country Day education doesn’t end at graduation. Our program prepares students not just for success in college but also to lead ethical and productive lives. High school students are expected to give 50 hours of community service before graduation. The newly launched, voluntary internship program, a unique model in the Sacramento area, provides access to pre-professional experiences and leadership opportunities in a myriad of areas — including advocacy, global medicine, and entrepreneurship.
Finally, closely linked to our sense of public purpose and the richness and vitality of our learning community, we make access to Country Day possible to students across the economic spectrum by annually providing $1.9 million dollars in tuition assistance, including two newly-minted high school diversity scholarships under the name Country Day Scholars.
In a later letter, I will speak to Country Day’s challenges and opportunities identified through my Entry Process as we lay the groundwork for addressing areas where the school can improve and grow.
It is daunting to summarize the numerous conversations I have had over the past five months, yet my experience as a listener is not over now, nor will it ever be. A Head of School must also be a head learner which requires patient listening and persistence in asking the right questions. It is through this ongoing dialogue that I hope to further my understanding of this extraordinary, one-of-a-kind school.