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January 12, 2023

Letter from the Academic Dean

Rigor and relationships. This phrase is nothing new in educational circles. I believe I first heard it in a conversation with Arch Montgomery and Jay Bonner following a 2009 David Brooks editorial, but I know it’s been bandied about in educational circles since we discovered chalk. It’s not new or revolutionary, but there’s something about it that sticks, and I believe these words are at the heart of what we offer at Asheville School.

First, there’s rigor. We set high expectations for our students, believing in what they can achieve and in the merit of the challenge it takes to get there. Several years ago, the neuroscientist Frances Jensen delivered a talk to our community about the teenage brain. What inspired me most was her discussion of this extraordinary window of time in students’ development, when their brains are ripe and ready to learn—ready to grow new pathways, ready to consolidate and store information, ready to become the critically thinking supercomputers they’re capable of becoming. Teens are flexible thinkers, and the more they practice and challenge and stretch themselves, the more they transform right before our eyes. I’m in awe of my students’ ability to absorb, analyze, and create. In fact, I’ve often joked with them that I can hear their brains whirring when they meet the challenge of a demanding problem—or perhaps even fail at it; however, it’s no joke that their brains are literally growing right before our eyes. We owe it to our students to push that growth, to prepare them with the foundation where they can share their knowledge and their burgeoning wisdom with the world around them. Yes, we’re preparing them for college, but more importantly, we want to prepare them for a life of purpose.

But rigor alone doesn’t get the job done, and we would be remiss if it were our sole focus. Purpose is firmly grounded in relationships—with teachers, with fellow students, and with the broader community. We challenge them and then provide the supportive connection they need to meet those challenges. And if they fail, we’ll be there to encourage them and to help them identify what can be gained in that failure, what can be found in new approaches.

When I first discovered the boarding school model seventeen years ago, what I found most compelling was the opportunity to live in a small, intentional community where learning transcends the boundaries of the classroom. Our students are building the foundations to connect and engage with others in meaningful ways, to discover the opportunities that abound for them to put those brains to use. Their brains are wired for learning about the value of strong and healthy relationships in their expanding circles just as much as they’re wired to analyze Course of Empire or to predict the outcome of chemical processes. Even one meaningful relationship can make such a difference in what comes next.

It’s a huge responsibility, and a huge privilege, to participate in this essential, formative time of a young person’s life. The more they grow and learn, the more they understand who they’re meant to be. It’s an honor to watch them figure out how they will engage in this world and live full lives of purpose.

Helen Plaehn
Academic Dean