Q&A Interview with Roxbury Latin Headmaster Kerry Brennan
39 percent of RL students this year receive some type of financial aid.
This is Part I of a two-part interview with Roxbury Latin's Headmaster Kerry Brennan, in which he talks about the 46 acres the school purchased, whether the school will ever be co-ed and more. Part II will be published tomorrow.
How long have you been the headmaster?
This is my seventh year. I've been here since 2004. Before that I was the headmaster of the Collegiate School in New York City.
I began my teaching career here in 1978, and taught here for eight years before I left for a leadership position at University School in Cleveland. I love the school. It is a remarkable place - a distinctive place. The kids are particularly interesting, open, energetic and warm. At both other schools at which I worked I had always hoped for more of Roxbury Latin in the way they define themselves and the kids we attracted and the relationship the faculty has with the students and overall mission of the school.
RL was a dream match for me for my own values and as a schoolmaster for what it would allow me to be and do.
Is there a difference between a headmaster, a principal or other school leaders titles, in your opinion?
Not really, I think it's more of a traditional title because we've been around for a long time, since 1645. We use some terminology that we used when we were founded. Prior to the middle of 19th century there wasn't a headmaster at Roxbury Latin. There was only one teacher because they had only 30 or 40 kids in the school. I am the 12th headmaster of RL, but only because they began to call us headmasters in the mid 19th century. And especially given my own varied duties as a teacher, coach and counselor to be the Head Master among a cadre of talented masters is an apt title.
What do you like best about working for Roxbury Latin?
I like the variety of my job. I like the ability to work with the boys and adults. I like that what I do is having an impact on the here and now. And a lot of my work has to do with the long range future of the school. I like being able to contribute in each of those arenas.
And I especially like my contact with the boys. I can have an impact on them. I know every one of the 295 boys. We say that at RL "every boy is known and loved," and we deliver on that promise. I feel as if I really understand what's going on in each kid's RL career. I hope I can be a positive role model for each of them. They nourish me as well. They're smart and funny and warm.
What do you like least about working for Roxbury Latin?
(Long pause…) I see a silver lining in what I have to do. When there's an occasional crossed wire that is suggested by a disciplinary episode, it's rough to untangle and it's nuanced. You want to think of the best interest for everyone involved in the school. I don't yearn for one of those every week. I'd rather not have it. I don't have very much of it. But I also know the lessons learned from these episodes can be powerful, especially because we care most of all about a boy's character.
What kind of student attends RL?
I think, and this is one of the things I've emphasized - I think we are underappreciated for the remarkably distinctive demographic of the school. We have been organically diverse since our founding and are especially diverse socio-economically. The reason that's so is first of all we're a relatively Spartan place, with a lean management model. There is not a lot of administrative overhead. For example, I have many jobs, as do many of my colleagues. So our operating budget is responsible. We then also are beneficiaries of an endowment that has accrued for hundreds of years. We also have a very generous annual fund made up of gifts from current parents, alumni, and parents of alumni. All that leads to us having, by most people's standards, a hearty tuition of $20,800. If you were to compare us to other independent schools in the area, however, we're $15,000 less than Belmont Hill, Winsor, or Noble & Greenough. The other factor that contributes to the distinctive demographic is that we're a need-blind admissions school. We admit students regardless of what they can pay, and then submit those names to the financial aid officer to determine how much aid they need. There's no quibbling over who deserves it more. There are very few colleges that can do that. Thirty-nine percent of our students are receiving financial aid this year, a high watermark even for us. This is above and beyond a discounted tuition.
We don't have what's called the barbell effect, a situation in which there are plenty of "full pay" students and a smattering who can pay nothing at all. Rather, some people need the whole $20,800, and we offer that, or there is someone who needs $3,000 - they receive that. And there are plenty of families in the school that need $5,000, $10,000 in order to make them come here. It creates a textured student body like no other.
There's no referring to one's financial status. Kids don't know who's rich or poor. It creates an environment in which kids become friends with kids they wouldn't normally encounter, even in their local public schools. Most public schools are not as diverse; they are more reflective of the socio-economic standing of the community. It's a key difference in our student body.
We have a long standing commitment to city of Boston boys. Roxbury Latin is over 35 percent made up Boston boys. We're a city school. We started as a city school, started in Roxbury, which was more viable then Boston in the seventeenth century. We feel a keen commitment to those kids.
Where are RL students from? West Roxbury?
As I said 35 percent are from the city of Boston, and probably the highest neighborhood representation is from West Roxbury, then Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester. We do have a historic interest in enrolling kids from Roxbury, Mattapan, South Boston, Back Bay - we're a school that really cares about having kids from all over the city. Once people know about it, they're remarkably excited about the opportunity for their kids. It's a school for working class families and a way for them to move up and out. It's also a school to which well-off suburban families can send their kids for the benefit of their sons' exposure to all kinds of other boys and as part of a meritocracy.
Tell me about the relationship that RL has with the community of West Roxbury?
I think it's an evolving relationship, which sounds bizarre because we've been here since 1927 when the school moved from Roxbury to West Roxbury. It was a relatively rural area then. RL was seen in those days and well into the 20th century as a preserve for very smart kids from parts of Boston and a select crew of kids from West Roxbury. Our presence in the community has expanded as more and more boys and families have been served by the school.
A goal of mine is to be seen as a resource to West Roxbury as we have always been to greater Boston. I want people to take advantage of coming to games, also theatrical and music events. We're doing more service work with West Roxbury people; like through the Connected Living program (RL students help seniors with computers) that began last year and started up again a few weeks ago. I am always glad for us to be a site for meetings, and for a few years Main Streets used us as their benefit venue. Some people had said they'd never been here or through our gates. I don't want that. I want to be a resource for the community and families and kids. And we want to be a kind neighbor to other institutions. We have a good relationship with St. Theresa's and public schools that send us kids. I think we can do more. As we've expanded our summer offerings, we will be more of a resource. We did summer theater this past summer and that will be more available to members of the community as time goes on. We're offering more academic programs during the summer, which you don't need to be an RL student to attend. And we've been offering athletic clinics through the years. We're also a long-time site for Tenacity.