Reflections on a Difficult Week and Our Commitments for the Road Ahead

Dear Athenian Community Members:

Athenian began in 1965 as a school that was fully integrated and coeducational when parts of this country still had segregated schools. Though countless battles in service of equality have been fought and won, the prevalence of stories like those of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery remind us that brutality against Black Americans endures.

Athenian was a safe haven during those early years of extreme uncertainty and national violence, but it must be more than a safe haven now. It must rise to the challenge of training us to be leaders of the equity and justice we champion within our school.

Our COVID-19 response served as solid evidence of our ability to pivot quickly in the face of urgency. We recognize that the anti-racism work we have intended to do within our own community is overdue. To this end, we as a school will recommit to DEIC (diversity, equity, inclusion, cultural competence) with the urgency these issues deserve. The following steps will be our start:

  1. All faculty and staff will read White Fragility as professional development this summer.
  2. Key members of faculty and staff will participate in and support both student-facing and staff/faculty-facing affinity and DEIC work.
  3. We will create virtual affinity spaces to be held outside of the school year, beginning this summer.
  4. The administrative team will do professional development with consultants who specialize in issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competence. They will work to improve our systems.
  5. The school will mindfully plan and gear more events toward affinity groups throughout the year, while also framing the DEIC events calendar at Athenian to begin with an acknowledgment of our diversity in the fall, build towards inclusion week in both divisions in January, and culminate in a cultural competency seminar at the end of the school term.

I want to assure you all that Athenian stands with you in solidarity with justice and peace. 

With great respect,

Eric F. Niles

Head of School

The Athenian School

Gratitude and Meaningful Contributions

I am particularly grateful for our Athenian community this week. As our neighbors to the north battle unimaginable devastation, Athenians immediately jumped into action, creating supply drives, taking in the displaced, saving animals from shelters, and coordinating a school-wide response. When tragic events happen nearby, Athenian’s founding values of service and community hit home for all of us. I know that it takes a commitment to send your student to Athenian, and I am humbled by how easily and eagerly Athenians extend their commitment to our broader community.

As these events unfold around us, we must remain clear of vision and purpose. Our founder, Dyke Brown, started Athenian on the belief that “intellectual fitness in combination with moral virtue and concern for societal needs and civic responsibilities is the only way to truly educate our young.” I believe in the Athenian mission now more than ever. I see our students and alumni responding to crises in the world by wanting to help, and they know—even the 6th graders—that they can. We must continue to offer an Athenian education because we need young people who believe in goodness, who want to serve society, and who are committed to the well-being of humanity. Brown’s insight from sixty years ago remains true: “This is the kind of person our nation and the world needs, and this is the goal of The Athenian School.”

I am reminded of a poem Dick Bradford often reads in the fall, Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Robert Frost. Nothing that is beautiful can ever last, as is the devastating case in Napa and Sonoma. Loss is inevitable, and I want to teach our kids that the cycle of life and death reminds us how precious certain moments are, how much we have to be grateful for, and how each one of us can be a shining light in another’s time of darkness.

In the coming weeks, we will be reflecting with our students around many of these themes. We will encourage them to explore their feelings, to investigate life’s injustices, and to lend an able hand. We will leverage the resources of our School to offer aid where we can and to instill a sense of civic responsibility in the young people we educate.

Now, we simply want to ask you to think about what is meaningful in your life and where you can make contributions that support your values. I donate my time and money to humanitarian relief organizations, to support orphans in Uganda, and to Athenian, because I believe in those causes and I want to model for my children how just one family can make a difference. Please join me in reflecting on what is meaningful in your own life and where and how you and your family can make the world better than you found it.

Thank you for being a part of this community. Your children inspire me every day and I am grateful for the energy, joy, and love they add to the world.

With humble gratitude,

Eric F. Niles

Head of School

A Community of Kindness, Compassion, and Respect

By Eric Niles, Head of School, read at Convocation, our annual all-school kickoff meeting.

Welcome to our seniors, the Class of 2017. Welcome to our 8th graders, the Class of 2021. And welcome to our 6th graders, the Class of 2023. I always like to say that because it sounds so futuristic. Welcome to the faculty and staff—I hope you all had a great summer and a great start to the year. Welcome to members of the Athenian board of trustees.  These trustees are all volunteers, so they do this work not to get paid, but to support the efforts of a school they love. They are, in short, making a very meaningful contribution in our world.

My summer was mostly great.  I am not one to focus on the negative—trust me, my “glass” is way more than half full as a member of this Athenian community—but there was one particular time that was very hard.  In early August, about 30 of us came together in the CFTA to honor the life of Safar Shakeyev, an alumnus from 2010 who sadly passed away in late July. Mark VanWarmerdam, Michelle Park, and Emily Shinkle are in Kazaksthan with Safar’s family as I say this.  He was actually the second young alum who died this summer.  Dan Goldberg ’03 had passed away just the week before.  Also, this summer was a time of deep unease, both politically and socially, in the United States.  We have a presidential campaign that is more divisive than any in my lifetime and this June we witnessed the death of unarmed people of color at the hands of police and then the death of 5 police officers in Dallas.  I was reeling.  And you know what I wanted rather than the quiet of summer vacation?  I wanted my community together.  Sure, there was a smattering of us here working this summer and we hugged and cried at the deaths of our young friends.  That was comforting, but I wanted the power of the whole community here.  We feed and nurture each other.

So I see some people looking around.  Is he advocating year-round school?  Is this the end of summer at Athenian?  Well, no.  Selfishly I would want you around, but I understand the power of summer to help us all catch our breath.  But that is what I wanted in that moment.

Why?  Because this community, at its core, is about kindness, compassion, and respect for everyone. Everyone.  If you are new to Athenian, that is an important message for you to take in today.  Because not all communities have those values, live those values.  But we do.  It means that you will be welcomed here, respected here, with open arms.  It means that we will soon be confused about who is new to 9th grade and who came from Athenian’s Middle School.  Wait, hasn’t she been here for 3 years?  Well, no.  Three months.  It means that if you fall short of that standard—if you are mean—your fellow students will likely intervene before any adult has a chance to respond.

I wanted to thank you for that ethic of kindness.  It is a power of this community and, trust me, the world needs all of you right now.  We need to be strong and united in the face of a world that sows divisiveness and fear.  Equity and inclusion can’t just be words we say to be politically correct; they must be truths we live because they are the right and human things to do.

Not having you all with me this summer, more than anything, reminded me not to take it for granted.

There is so much power in this community each day that I can sometimes take it for granted, I can feel entitled to this and more.  Not deeply thankful, but instead wondering what the world has done for me lately.  I lose my perspective.  The deaths of Safar and Dan gave it back with a slap in the face.  And I can see that entitlement around me at times.  The dishes left out at lunch, the complaints about things—from all of us—that honestly seem so small in the face of all we have.

Knowing that we have each other, the respect and kindness of each other to lean on, let’s together shed that entitlement.  Instead let’s see what we have as a call to do more, to be of deeper service to our community and our world, to be a beacon of kindness to which other beacons can attach and gain strength.  We are not simply the joiners of communities at Athenian, we should be the creators of communities.  There is so much human goodness out there.  All of you are proof to me of that.  It took Safar’s and Dan’s deaths this summer to remind me of it, and I won’t soon forget.

I hope you had a rejuvenating summer and thanks for coming home to Athenian for this year.  I am glad to have you all here.  Have a wonderful year.

The Logistics Behind the Logistics

by Eric Niles, Head of School

Part of my Spring Break was spent deep in Death Valley camping with the logistics team resupplying our AWE (Athenian Wilderness Experience) groups.  It was nothing short of a magical four days for me.  My son, Cade, a Death Valley veteran from last year, is on the logistics team and my daughter, Hannah, a Death Valley participant in 2013, joined me for the trip.  It was wonderful to share that experience with my own children and with about 30 of my other “kids” as they came into resupply.  Their smiles were full and their eyes were beginning to show the clarity so visible at Run-In each year.  They said their groups (I saw groups 1, 2, & 3) were great and asked me to tell their parents that they miss them and love them.  Consider the message delivered.  

I was already aware that AWE is so much more than a backpacking trip, that Jason and Phoebe, our AWE Directors, (and all their instructors) administer a well-conceived and tested curriculum to be sure that each student receives the educational outcomes (e.g. leadership, self-esteem, teamwork, resilience) so unique to this trip.  What I got to see this time was the complicated logistics “dance” that makes sure our children have all the food and water they need for the journey.  Just the car ride down the 32-mile dirt road to the logistics camp was enough to test my mettle.  On top of that, the logistics team needs to get (and refill, and refill) the water that will later be dispersed, tend to any medical needs, and make sure all the food is sorted and ready to go.  The “Logis” do it all and they do it with gusto. 

I wasn’t sure I was a “desert person” but I am now.  The expanse of the Racetrack (a dry ancient lake bed) towered over by Ubehebe Peak is just breathtaking.  Dare I say, AWE inspiring.  And, yes, it was the year of the “Super Bloom” of wildflowers.  Think Wizard of Oz.  Pictured here is me next to a Sailing Stone.  Note the trail that marks its movement over the decades.  Do a Google search to hear about these stones.  It is worth your time.  

Once again, I wrap up a year feeling blessed to be part of this community and helping to tend to this mission.  Athenian is one of a kind.  So are each of our kids.  Happy spring.

Commuting Across the Ocean

by Eric Niles, Head of School

As we return to School after a long break, I have a better understanding for what it must be like for our international students to travel long distances to return to school.  In October, I spent three weeks in Asia.  When I arrived in my first stop, Shanghai, I found my way for the hour-long drive from the airport to my hotel.  That was about the same distance as SFO to Athenian.  It was exhilarating and a bit daunting to navigate a new language and culture.

I was in Asia to celebrate The Athenian School’s 50th Anniversary and to meet with alumni and parents of our boarding students. Athenian’s boarding program is such a rich part of our past and present and creates a global, dare I say cosmopolitan, community in our corner of the Bay Area. We are proud of that internationalism and so pleased by the education all our students get by meeting, learning from, and caring for one another. It is another way that Athenian’s education is unique from so many college preparatory schools. We are not just college prep, we are life-prep and engagement-prep and change-the-world-prep.

While I planned carefully to avoid any jet lag (a shout out to Trustee Josh Freeman for his tutorials), it was still a struggle to transition to a vastly different time clock.  Again, a lesson in empathy for me as I think about our students who make this journey numerous times per year.


Photo of Eric and Chris Beeson with the Kim family in their Seoul home.

A Community of Character

This article in The New York Times made me think about the community of character we have built over the last 50 years at Athenian. We could easily have been one of the highlighted communities. And it’s no surprise that Kurt Hahn was an inspiration for one of the school’s listed here. His fingerprints are all over what we have done at Athenian for all these years.

Beyond our students, I think our community extends to our parents as well. In a world where neighborhoods and community organizations no longer bind us as in the past, Athenian parents find a commonality and kinship in the educational choice they have made for their children. They too embrace our values and find lifetime friendships with others who do the same. Enjoy this article.

“Beyond the Blackboard”: Kurt Hahn and Expeditionary Learning

by Eric Niles, Head of School

I write this blog post from Shanghai at the beginning of a six-country tour to celebrate Athenian’s 50th Anniversary and our identity as a global boarding school.  Shanghai is an amazing city and I have been warmly welcomed by our parents here.

As I landed, my email and texts were lighting up with notes about a radio documentary on KQED.  The piece isn’t literally about Athenian, but really, it is.  It is about Kurt Hahn, educator and founder of Outward Bound and the inspiration of our founder, Dyke Brown. It is about Hahn’s passion for character education and an emphasis on non-cognitive skills like persistence, leadership, and getting along with others as the means to prepare students to be compassionate citizens.  It is about education as it should be.  It is about Athenian.

The story is long, but I urge you to listen if you can find the time.  If you want to understand why we do Focus Friday’s, and AWE, and Round Square exchanges, and emphasize the Arts, and push so hard on core academic skills–this story is a great window into our mission and our thinking.  And if you want your child to visit the schools in Germany and Scotland started by Kurt Hahn, then just have them sign up for a Round Square exchange, for those two schools, like Athenian, were founders of that organization.

Part 2 of the story helps you understand why we are thinking so deeply about Athenian’s public purpose, the service we are supposed to do as an institution beyond the great education we provide every day to our students.

I know I often say “the world has come to Athenian.”  This story another indication of that.

Enjoy as I take Athenian to the world for the next few weeks.  See you soon.


Photo of students sitting for individual reflection during 9th-grade orientation at Pt. Reyes.  Photo by Mark Lukach.

Athenian: Recognized for Emotional Learning

By Eric Niles, Head of School

In February, I was in an audience of about 6,000 independent school administrators and teachers at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).  The conference was just beginning and the Association’s Executive Director, John Chubb, was giving his opening remarks.  In a time of great change in education, he was remarking on the things independent schools have always provided to their students.  He had listed three items and then began to talk about “the most important one—emotion.”  I was in the top row of the balcony of this massive hall as John Chubb began to talk about “touching the heart and soul” of our students, about how schools are not about just “teaching stuff” to kids.  He gave one example from a school in the east that created a fun way to call a snow day and then prepared to wrap up his comments.

Truthfully, I was already mentally making my transition to the first conference session (i.e., scanning my program to decide which of the dozens of presentations I would attend) when John Chubb said, “…Our schools are also good at touching kids so deeply that it changes their lives.”  It was then that a picture of an Athenian AWE patrol popped up on the massive screens at the front of the hall and now John had the full measure of my attention.

From here, I will let John speak for himself.  In the video, he starts talking about schools’ ability to elicit emotion at about 18:55 and then about Athenian at 21:25.  You can see that talking with our students deeply touched him and he, too, became emotional. My throat tightened as well as he talked about Athenian and the way this mission moves our students.  It was even a bit more poignant knowing that my son was only days away from embarking to Death Valley himself.

It took every bit of my self-control to not stand up in the back of the auditorium and scream, “That is my school!”  And I would have wanted people to know that AWE is but one way we endeavor to touch the hearts and souls of our students and engender in them a life of intellectual exploration and meaningful contribution.  When you respect students as humans and deep learners, and mix that with a mission that is all about applying knowledge (not simply gathering it) and using it to do good, then you get The Athenian School.  This was a supremely proud moment for me, although I am proud daily by the way our faculty and students bring their passion to the world.  As I have said on numerous occasions, the world has “come to us” in recognizing that Athenian’s brand of education is a supremely powerful way to prepare students for success in college and the years beyond.  Enjoy.

What Does It Mean to Be an Athenian?

By Eric Niles, Head of School

Earlier this month we gathered as a school to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Athenian’s founder, Dyke Brown.  Several former heads of school, Eleanor Dase and Steve Davenport, spoke eloquently about their interactions with Dyke Brown and the lessons he taught them about education and leadership.  I left in ongoing awe of my predecessors in this job—they speak with a calm clarity that indicates the wisdom they brought to this School—and the vision that Dyke Brown had for educating a “whole person” and preparing her for a meaningful life as a citizen of the world.  At the very end of the session, students were invited to write and submit a short note about what Athenian meant to them.  One student, recognising that she didn’t have enough time in the moment to do this assignment justice, went home and penned the poem below.  Elizabeth, an 8th grader and a budding poet, says it better than I could.  Dyke Brown would be rightfully proud.   

by Elizabeth “Z” Romero

What does it mean to be an Athenian?
This is a question
that can’t be answered so easily,
because we aren’t all the same.
But, we are one.
We are our own people,
But we are one community.
We are Athenian.

We are intelligent.
That it is the reason that we are here.
We have potential
to impact the world and make a change.
We have the capacity to stand out
and show that we are the leaders of the world.
We are Athenian.

We are caring.
We travel the world to help those less fortunate.
We are loving
of everyone and everything, everywhere.
We are supportive
of everybody here, no matter what.
We are Athenian.

We are leaders.
We listen to everybody’s opinion.
We are followers
that listen to people’s ideas and follow through.
We are decision makers
and always consider the greater good.
We are Athenian.

Although we seem small and powerless,
we are small and powerful.
We are strong by ourselves
and we are strong together.
We will leave this school,
but we will never leave each other,
because we will always remember our time together.
We will keep in touch
and hear each other’s names everywhere.

Athenian alumni cures cancer.
Athenian alumni solves world hunger.
Athenian alumni invents a time machine.

Yes, we will go our separate ways
and we will do different things.
But we will always be together.
We are extraordinary.
We are individual.
We are one.
We are Athenian.

The College Race: “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be”

By Eric Niles, Head of School

As another college admissions season comes to a close, I was so pleased to see this article about Frank Bruni’s new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be in the New York Times. I watch the anxiety of our students—and I think we are calm and balanced compared to many other schools—and I just know there is a better way to welcome our seniors happily into the world of college and beyond.  Please read this article and then think about the people you most respect in this world.  Where did they go to college?  Did they all go to some “top-ranked” (whatever that means) school?  Do you even know or care where they went to school, or do you care more about what they have accomplished?

There are thousands of great schools in this nation and any number of them are great matches for our kids.  Might the best match be one of the most competitive schools?  Of course, but let the match and the desires of the individual student, not some ranking, drive that decision. As Andrew Delbanco summarizes in his review of Bruni’s book, “[Bruni] wants to remind young people that what they get from college has almost everything to do with the attitude they bring to it and almost nothing to do with where it stands in the pecking order of prestige.” Once a match is made, then the magic happens when our children are surrounded by professors and peers that share their passions.

And as Bruni argues, where you go to college is just not who you will be.  No matter where your child goes after Athenian, I can say with confidence that they will be poised for a life of intellectual exploration and meaningful contribution.  They will do well and they will do good in this world.  As an Athenian graduate, that is who they will be.

With great respect, Eric