Upham leaves legacy of inclusion

“When I talk to people about Rebecca, the word that comes up most frequently is ‘builder,’ and I think that speaks a lot to her legacy. It’s both a literal and figurative meaning when people say it,” Director of Communications Joe Clifford said. 

After 17 years as head of school, Rebecca Upham has built a community defined by her commitment to diversity, financial aid, and the school’s motto of honor, scholarship, and kindness. 

At the beginning of Ms. Upham’s tenure, the Lower School (LS) was comprised of 15 percent students of color. Today, that number has risen to 41 percent. 

“The diversity of our community has always been extremely important to me, but serving well all members of our community is even more important to me,” Ms. Upham told The Vanguard.

With that in mind, in 2006 the school sought and received a grant from the E. E. Ford Foundation to study achievement measures and patterns of all students in the school. The administration wanted a clear picture of how different groups were performing, Director of Multicultural Services Lewis Bryant said. He said the study revealed that there was an achievement gap between white students and students of color and that a number of students who did not identify as white were not fully engaged and comfortable in the community.

“We found some things in that study that didn’t make us proud, and we dove in to try to fix them,” Ms. Upham said. “It was a clear call to become more diverse.”

Under Ms. Upham’s leadership and with her support, the school pulled together a team of external educators from the greater Boston area who reported on the study’s findings and provided recommendations for how to improve diversity, Mr. Bryant said.

The study prompted the school to evaluate curriculum offerings with an eye to making them more accessible and equitable to all students and to start a summer transition program open to new Upper School (US) students with an eye to helping them begin high school on a more level playing field. The study also prompted the school to strengthen affinity groups for students of color and to focus on faculty professional development with respect to diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion.

“Diversity is something that Rebecca has always cared deeply about on a personal level, and I think that really is the key,” Mr. Bryant said. “Rebecca is not afraid to rock the boat a little bit in order to have institutional change, and she is someone who has the courage to go to bat for what she believes is right.”

Ms. Upham said that expanding the financial aid program at the sch0ol was another aspect of her mission at the school. 

“My priority for financial aid goes right back to the diversity of the student body,” she explained. “We are all better when we are in a more diverse community, where people bring different perspectives and life experiences into the conversation. Diverse communities are more intellectually stimulating and academically satisfying.”

During her years helming the school, the financial aid budget rose from about $2.4 million to $8.3 million. The number of students receiving financial aid also grew from 173 to 234, and the average gift increased from $13,000 to $33,000, Director of Stewardship and Office of External Affairs Communications Janet Rosen said.

“She’s raised an astronomical number for financial aid and was relentless in her campaign to make sure that we got the money,” Director of Financial Aid Genieve Rankel said. “I can’t imagine where we would be without her fundraising.”

Mrs. Rankel added that by putting financial aid front and center, Ms. Upham has made it less of a hushed topic and a more regular part of the community conversation.

In honor of Ms. Upham’s efforts in this realm, the school has established The Upham Scholars Fund for financial aid, an honor announced at a farewell reception for Ms. Upham on May 11 at the Nicholas Athletic Center (NAC). Four hundred school faculty, alumni/ae, and other community members attended the event, where current and former trustees spoke about Ms. Upham’s influence on the school. 

Co-Chair of the 2001 Head of School Search Committee Pat Light P’89, ’91, GP’24, ’29 told those assembled that Ms. Upham joined a school that was strong and built it to become even stronger. 

During Ms. Upham’s tenure, for example, the school’s endownment expanded from about $30 million to $74 million, and both the Middle School (MS) and the US underwent student-friendly renovations. To make the US renovation possible, Ms. Upham solicited student input, running several charettes with students and the architects about the design. Mr. Clifford said Ms. Upham focused on the smallest details to ensure they were right for the school and even enlisted a student, David Seliger ’08, to design the US staircase next to the Fishbowl. 

“I thought that was classic Ms. Upham,” Mr. Clifford said.

In 2015, Ms. Upham also pioneered the first MS renovation in about 50 years. MS English Teacher Rachel Jamison, who served on the Board of Trustees’ real estate committee from 2009 to 2012, reported that the renovation started as a modest plan for upgrades such as a new boiler and an elevator, but when the school was presented with architectural challenges, Ms. Upham saw an opportunity for a larger reclamation. Ms. Jamison was skeptical of their initial plans , she said, but Ms. Upham reassured her with a strategic approach.

“Rebecca’s insights throughout the planning phase and her determination throughout the fundraising process were integral to getting the project off the ground,” Ms. Jamison told faculty at an end-of-year party on May 31. “Because of Rebecca’s initiative, vision, and support, what began as a rudimentary deferred-maintenance project evolved into a renovation project that transformed the entire Middle School, enhancing the experience for faculty, students, and families.”

The school culture has also shifted under Ms. Upham’s leadership, becoming more mindful of supporting students beyond academics, Mr. Bryant said.

“Rebecca recognized that BB&N is always going to be an academic-oriented institution, but she saw that we needed to do more to make the overall student experience more fun,” he said. “BB&N is a more compassionate school that is much more attentive to the whole child, and not just what goes on in the classroom.”

Mr. Clifford agreed, saying that Ms. Upham was able to maintain, and even elevate, academic standards at the school while also creating more of a community feeling. 

“BB&N is not just an academic powerhouse anymore,” Mr. Clifford said. “It’s a happier, kinder, more joyful place to go to school, and she deserves enormous credit for this change.” 

Rachel Avram ’18, an outgoing Vanguard editor who has met with Ms. Upham several times to discuss sensitive topics such as sexual impropriety and active-shooter training, said she feels fortunate to have studied under a head of school eager to hear student perspectives and willing to give them her undivided attention. 

“It was obvious that she cared and thought deeply about the issues that faced the student body, which really reassured me that the BB&N community was in good hands,” Rachel said. “Our conversations probably lasted about 40 minutes each, and I never once felt like I was being talked down to.”

Rachel went on to express gratitude for Ms. Upham’s unwavering support of student journalism, adding, “She taught me that student voices are worth hearing and have the power to effect real change from the ground up.”

US Director Geoff Theobald said that in addition to focusing on students’ needs and fostering a comfortable environment for all different kinds of students to thrive, Ms. Upham also concentrated on the well-being of the faculty.

“This is a school, under Ms. Upham’s leadership, where professional development is highly encouraged,” Mr. Theobald said. “As a faculty member, you know that if you have an idea for improving your class or your teaching or the overall experience for students, more often than not you will be strongly supported with professional development funding.”

MS Director Mary Dolbear said that Ms. Upham also understood the critical role the Parents Association (PA) plays and prioritized making parent volunteers feel welcomed and appreciated in the school community. 

“She knew that the more voices and experiences at the table, the better we could be,” Ms. Dolbear said. “It was clear that there were lots of families who felt more on the edges versus in the center, and she wanted to pull people in. She knew the value of community building and wanted a more diverse group of parents to be an integral part of the PA leadership team.”

Rosemary Downer, Ms. Upham’s executive assistant from 2004 to 2015, said that inclusiveness has been a hallmark of Ms. Upham’s tenure at the school. 

“Always mindful of the importance for all members of the community to have a voice, she was able to make the time for open forums, panel discussions, one-on-one meetings, surveys, etc., to listen to those voices,” Ms. Downer said. “She acknowledged those voices and followed up with action.”

LS Director Anthony Reppucci said that Ms. Upham promoted a welcoming atmosphere on the LS campus by greeting families in the lobby of the Morse Building with her dog Leo beside her and by coming to speak or hear students present proposals for change on the campus.

“The kids really love it, and she is there often enough that they know who she is,” Mr. Reppucci said. 

Ms. Upham said that she credits her accomplishments to her amazing colleagues. 

“Everything that’s happened is a result of what different groups of people did collectively,” she said. 

She added that she has appreciated the daily excitement at the school and feels honored to have served the community.

“I will miss the energy that you feel here and riding my bicycle past the courtyard of the Upper School and watching any number of things going on,” she said. “I’m extremely proud to be associated with a school that has such an incredible student body who are serious about their studies but have a real commitment to community and kindness.”

Beginning in the fall, Ms. Upham will become executive chairwoman for The Whittle School & Studios in Washington, D.C. (“Upham joins global school as D.C. chair,” Vol. 46, No. 8). On behalf of all of the students at the school, The Vanguard wishes her good luck.

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