Wilbraham Monson Academy Looks to Build on Recent Momentum
Growing up, Brian Easler said he was anything but the proverbial ‘prep-school guy.’ He attended public high school and then went into the Army, serving in Desert Storm. But he always had what he called a fascination with the private-school life, or the world presented in Dead Poets Society. Today, as head of school at Wilbraham Monson Academy, a role he assumed after 16 years in various posts at the school, he’s leading roughly 500 students, faculty, and staff now living that life. More importantly, he’s working diligently to keep the school on a long run of growth, increased diversity, and vibrancy.
There’s an intriguing tradition at Wilbraham Monson Academy.
It’s called the ‘senior stone,’ and it dates back to when this 211-year-old institution was known as Wilbraham Academy, and with the class of 1947.
It was with those individuals, all young men (the institution went co-ed years later), that the school began the practice of giving each graduating senior a stone, which would then be placed in the Rubicon, a stream that runs through a portion of the campus, where it remained until it was soft enough for the student to chisel his name and class year on it. The stone would then be placed atop one of the many stone walls on campus.
In recent times, maybe the past 20 years or so, students have taken to trading that soaking and chiseling work for bringing their stone to a professional engraver for some more elaborate messages, noted Brian Easler, head of school at WMA, adding quickly that the old method is still practiced by some and, by most accounts, is staging what amounts to a comeback.
“Over the past four years, there’s been a real movement back to people chiseling their own stones,” he said, “to the point where the dean’s office has set up a half-dozen canvas tool bags with a hammer, a chisel, and safety goggles, and students can sign out a kit.”
Both engraving practices are certainly in evidence along the low wall placed across the front of Rich Hall, the main administration building named for one of the school’s early trustees, Isaac Rich. There, one will find simple names or even initials obviously hand-chisled, as well as detailed, professional engravings, many mixing words with ornate images.
In many ways, that front wall, and the Senior Stone tradition itself, speaks to how this respected preparatory school balances tradition with changing times, technology with time-honored practices, and evolution with history.
In most respects, it is a delicate balancing act, one that Easler has led since becoming head of school in 2014, and been a part of since arriving on campus 17 years ago to lead alumni affairs and the school’s annual fund.
He would quickly move on to the role of dean of students, and later add the title associate head of school. When Rodney LaBrecque announced he was stepping down from the corner office, a search for a successor commenced. It wasn’t a long search — or as long as most — because the movement to place Easler in that position took on a life of its own.
Indeed, a Facebook page created by a member of the class of 2000 called ‘Brian Easler for WMA headmaster’ had more than 1,200 members within three days. “That roughly accounts for almost every student who graduated during my time as dean of students,” he noted. “And also some of the kids I kicked out.”
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Roughly 18 months into the job, Easler admits that he’s still growing into it, something he certainly didn’t expect (more on that later). And as he sliced through his many responsibilities and worked to sum them all up, he said the assignment comes down to simply maintaining what has been a lengthy and healthy run of growth, continued diversity in all its forms, increasingly global reach, and overall vibrancy at WMA.
But there’s nothing simple about that broad task.
Indeed, this is in many ways a challenging time for prep schools and colleges alike, as they grapple with declining populations of young people, immense competition for top students, global economic turmoil, and the need to maintain high standards of quality when it comes to admissions in the wake of these issues.
Couple these factors with ever-rising tuition costs, and the mission for WMA and all schools like it is to make sure value is among the assets it has to offer.
“We know that birth rates are declining, and that means school populations are declining, which means that competition is getting tougher for schools,” he said in describing the current operating climate. “And we’re also in an environment where tuition is going up. In order for us to balance what we cost with the value of what we provide, we need to have the most effective and most intentional financial plan — and focus on our mission — that we can.”
For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Easler about the many kinds of balancing acts going on at this institution, and his vision for this school with a future that appears, well, rock solid, and in a number of ways.
School of Thought
Easler has taken a rather intriguing path to the large office at Rich Hall assigned to the head of school, one that he probably couldn’t have imagined when he was in high school himself. And that’s because that setting was at the opposite end of the spectrum from where he is now.
“I went to public school in Maine, and was not a private-school guy,” he explained, adding quickly that, for a variety of reasons, he became fascinated, for lack of a better term, with the private, boarding-school realm.
“My first experience with private schools came when I was lifeguarding at the University of Maine,” he explained. “There was a gentleman who came in to swim every day who graduated from Eaglebrook (in Deerfield). He would tell me stories about his middle-school days there, and that created this fascination for me with boarding schools.”
It would later be fueled by Dead Poets Society, the movie starring Robin Williams about the fictitious Welton Academy, and other factors, including a chance encounter with the WMA campus while Easler and his wife were travelling from their new home in Springfield to Palmer.
But despite this evolving fascination, Easler seemed in no way destined for the career that would eventually take shape.
Indeed, upon graduation from high school, he joined the Army and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division’s Long-range Reconnaissance and Surveillance Detachment. As a Ranger team leader of a six-man squad, he would be awarded the Bronze Star for actions while engaged in combat operations behind enemy lines during Desert Storm.
After his stint with the Army concluded, he attended the University of Maine at Farmington, where, in a nod to Dead Poets Society perhaps, he majored in literature and minored in philosophy.
Easler noted that he first applied to Wilbraham Monson to be an English teacher — at the suggestion of one of the school’s retiring English teachers, who became the subject of one of his assignments at Springfield College, where he earned a master’s degree in Education.
He didn’t get the job, he explained, at least in part because he seriously lacked the skills necessary to coach field hockey, which was part of the job description.
But he certainly made some kind of impression. That became obvious a while later, as he was mulling where to go next, when the phone rang.
“It was the head of school, Richard Malley,” said Easler. “He said, ‘have you ever considered serving education in a role other than teaching?’ — and I had no idea what he was talking about.”
What Malley had in mind was the job as director of alumni affairs and running the annual fund, a job Easler wasn’t sure he could handle, but accepted anyway.
“He took a chance on me because I had no experience, and I took a chance because I didn’t know how to be alumni director,” he explained, adding that, 17 years later, he’s still at WMA because, as he put it, “I never had any desire to leave.”
As mentioned earlier, he would soon be promoted to dean of students, and in 2005, he became assistant head of school. He told BusinessWest that he thought those positions and their myriad responsibilities — everything from creation of a new evaluation system for teachers to leading students on educational trips to the Amazon jungle, to working with the town to install a new street-crossing light system — would adequately prepare him for his new role.
It turns out he was right. Well, sort of.
“I felt like I knew the job, that I had it all figured out,” he told BusinessWest. “As it turned out, I had no idea.”
School of Thought
What Easler said he’s learned over the past year and a half is that this job entails wearing many hats and assuming many roles.
“In one day, I can be dealing with parking-lot-assignment issues, auditors and lawyers, happy parents, billionaire alumni, and international dignitaries,” he said, adding that those in that latter category are often also alums. “At various times, you have to play the role of counselor and mayor, judge, priest — not in a particularly religious sense, but in terms of providing counsel to people when they’re at a time of need — and more.”
He’s taken on all those roles and others as he’s undertaken the twin challenges of maintaining the recent momentum at WMA and coping with the myriad challenges facing all private schools at this time. And they are, of course, interrelated.
“Our student body has grown in size and quality to the point where we’re full,” he said, describing his tenure at the school specifically. “And our school culture has changed significantly over the past 14 years.”
Elaborating, he said there are now students from 31 different counties and 11 states, escalation of a pattern — one that has earned WMA the nickname ‘the global school’ — that began in 1854, when the school became the first institution of its kind to admit a Chinese student.
International students now comprise one-third of the current student population of 420, which is a percentage the school embraces. But the term ‘diversity’ applies not only to countries of origin, Easler stressed, but other realms as well, including socio-economic status.
And maintaining this diversity is critical because it provides a rich learning experience that goes well beyond the classroom, one that students appreciate long after their stone is placed into a wall, he explained.
“It’s very important to the students to have a diverse campus because, when they come back from college, they tell us that even their college communities are not as diverse and inclusive as ours,” he explained. “My guess would be that this perception of theirs is not a statistical perception — the breakdown of the student populations are not dissimilar to ours. But the perception of it is different, because we’re much smaller.
“On a college campus, they have more of everyone, so it’s much easier to isolate yourself with whoever’s like you or whoever’s from where you’re from,” he went on. “We’re such a small community that that becomes virtually impossible. What students experience here is like social engineering or forced inclusivity, so that students, by nature of our program, and in a totally healthy way, find it necessary to engage with others who are not like them. And what they learn from it as a result is that they enjoy this, and they miss it when they go to college.”
Moving forward, the mission is obviously to continue this social engineering while also providing students with a high-quality education, and overall experience, that will prepare them not only for college but everything that life can throw at them afterward, said Easler.
And, in these times of declining populations of young people, heightened competition for top students, and rising tuition rates, schools like WMA are challenged to maintain their high standards, become ever more efficient, and focus their resources on programs and initiatives that will advance the institution and improve the overall student experience.
And this brings Easler back to that word ‘value.’
“It’s all about aligning ourselves, our mission, and our expenses so that our budget reflects our mission,” he told BusinessWest. “You can tell what an institution’s real mission is by looking at it’s budget; people spend their money on what’s important to them — and so do institutions.”
And at WMA, what’s important is the learning experience, he went on, adding that, over the past two years, as part of what could be described as strategic planning, the school has identified what’s important and adjusted the budget accordingly.
“We’ve become more lean and efficient as an institution, and more responsive to our parents and alumni,” he explained, adding that the school has boiled what’s important down to three basic criteria: the student experience, the mission, “and what keeps us attractive to our current or potential customers.”
No Stone Unturned
Looking ahead, and far down the road, Easler said WMA has plenty of sidewalks and roads near which to build walls to display the stones of graduating seniors for decades to come.
Beyond that, it has the other necessary ingredients as well — history, tradition, diversity, a willingness to adapt to changing times, and the ability to balance all of the above.
That, and a head of school who may not have been a prep-school guy growing up, but has forged a successful career leading and mentoring those who are.
That’s one reason, from nearly all accounts, why this venerable institution will weather the many challenges facing it and remain rock solid.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]