St. Johnsbury Academy Headmaster Tom Lovett will step down in June 2020 after completing his 19th year. In a letter announcing his decision to the Board of Trustees, Lovett said, “I, of course, have mixed feelings as I step away from what has been a labor of love for so many years, but I can do so confidently, knowing how strong the school is in its current state. The Academy is currently enjoying unparalleled student success on several levels and in several fields. It remains strongly independent and dynamically responsive to the needs of its students. It has in place what I believe is the strongest administrative team in the region (if not the country), and they have led it to exciting new heights in academics, campus life, and financial strength. While I will be stepping down, they will remain to continue the intentional work of creating innovative and engaging programs; a safe, caring, and inclusive culture; and a stable financial and physical infrastructure.”
Tom Lovett joined the faculty of the Academy in 1984 when he was hired as an English teacher by Headmaster Bernier Mayo ’56. He was named English department chair in 1992, Assistant Academic Dean in 2000, and also ran the AP Summer Institute before being named headmaster. Upon the announcement of his being named headmaster, Lovett said, “If the Academy can raise an English teacher and his family from the basement of Waterman to the Headmaster’s House, it can work great miracles indeed.” He continued, “I truly believe that my appointment is a tribute not only to me—and not even to me primarily—but to all of us—alumni, administration, faculty and staff—who have helped make this Academy one of the best secondary schools in the nation.”
Lovett’s impact on St. Johnsbury Academy has been profound, affecting all facets of the school—infrastructure, academic programming, and culture. Soon after he became headmaster, the school adopted a new mission statement that served as a concrete expression of its philosophy and a new standards-based curriculum. Lovett wrote, “By moving to a standards-based curriculum, we hope to make this approach to education more conscious and consistent. This move will involve three major improvements: our public acknowledgement of what we expect students to know and do, and how we expect them to act; our public commitment to determine how a particular student learns best and to work until each student improves; and our public reporting of how well we and our students are doing.”
Other programmatic changes included the addition of Senior Capstone, now a requirement for all seniors, a hallmark of the school, and a rite of passage for students in their final year. The Freshman Capstone was added later as part of the Freshman Humanities program. Funding for two endowed positions was secured: the Charles Hosmer Morse Innovation and Entrepreneurship chair position oversees the Senior Capstone program; the Christensen Chair in Engineering is tied to the school’s STEM program. The Hilltopper Active Learning Opportunity (HALO) was established through a partnership between the Academy, St. Johnsbury Middle School, and Northeast Kingdom Youth Services to help high-risk students prepare for the rigors of high school prior to their freshman year. The Hilltopper Restaurant opened at its current Main Street location to provide culinary students with training in a working restaurant. The Colwell Center for Global Understanding was to create a forum where ideas and cultural differences and similarities could be shared and explored through exchange and travel programs, language courses, and cultural celebrations. A new biomedical certificate program has allowed students to both study advanced science courses and experience off-campus internships in the medical field as they earn their certificates. The Summer Youth Corp (Operation Creation), a three-week summer program for area students during which rising 9th graders learn about business, entrepreneurship, and community service on the Academy campus and in the community, was started with support from the E.E. Ford and Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundations. The SJA Field Semester, an off-campus semester during which students undertake a hands-on environmental curriculum, was also established. Additionally, St. Johnsbury Academy was chosen by the College Board as one of only a handful of schools to pilot the AP Capstone Diploma program. It is still the only school in northern New England to offer the AP Capstone Diploma.
St. Johnsbury Academy received its largest gift during the early years of Lovett’s tenure. The $5 million anonymous challenge gift funded improved housing and increased support for students, program enhancement, technology upgrades, professional development, and endowment growth. Lovett said at the time, “This gift will transform the Academy. It will allow us to jump to the next tier of boarding schools while at the same time providing even more support and opportunities for our students and staff. The boost to the endowment is critical for us as we strive to maintain our extensive facilities and programs at a reasonable price to our families and communities.”
This gift was only the beginning. There have been many infrastructure additions and changes during Lovett’s time as headmaster, all made possible by the generous support of donors. After overseeing the last stages of the campus improvements planned during Bernier Mayo’s tenure, Lovett embarked on many of his own, especially concentrating on building and renovating dormitory space to accommodate a larger number of boarding students. New dormitories included Christensen House and The Green Dorm. Cramton House and Brantview underwent major renovations. Other projects included the softball field, the Ranger Hall retrofit, a ropes course behind Brantview, and the Graham Newell house renovation into The Straszko Center at Graham’s House, the new home of the school’s alumni center and the offices of the alumni, development, and marketing and communications departments. Through the generosity of Clement Dussault ’67, the Field Campus was established. It is the site of the SJA Field Semester and a solar array that helps power the school. Back on campus, the Gregory N. Sweeny Applied Engineering Center has helped faculty tap into the “maker movement” to the benefit of students.
The Academy has excelled on the athletic fields, and the dominance of the school’s teams seems to have increased with each passing year. Additions to the athletic program during Lovett’s tenure have included Ultimate Frisbee, girls’ volleyball, an international basketball team, and many other intramural sports. The school has established a set of core covenants for its athletic teams, and most athletes participate in off-season training. The school-record six state championships achieved during the 2017-2018 school year attest to the current quality of the athletic program at the Academy. Lovett coached football for many years and has made a point to attend as many athletic events as his schedule allowed. He has been a nearly daily presence at home games while headmaster.
The Kingdom Development Corporation (KDC) was founded during Lovett’s tenure to leverage the St. Johnsbury Academy brand globally and to support economic development in St. Johnsbury. KDC was instrumental in creating St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju in South Korea. The new school, located on Jeju Island, has taken the Academy’s mission, academics, and culture to the other side of the world and has outpaced all enrollment goals in its first two years. Most recently, KDC has partnered with Housing Vermont in the purchase and redevelopment of the Depot Square apartment block in downtown St. Johnsbury.
Tom Lovett and his team have also had an important impact on the culture of St. Johnsbury Academy. A commendation from the New England Association of Secondary Schools during the 2016 review noted: “Hilltopper pride and optimism, which contribute to the enormously positive culture and climate, are combined with appropriate openness and continued aspiration for future growth.” The culture at St. Johnsbury Academy is commended across the world. The school is well known for its mottos, “leave this place better than you found it” and “love those the most who need it the most” and is seen as a bastion of acceptance and camaraderie among its students. School spirit is very important, and the majority of students support their peers at sporting events, plays, and concerts. Developing the Academy’s culture has been a priority of Lovett’s team, and they have been very successful in this area.
Finally, Tom Lovett has fiercely defended the independence of St. Johnsbury Academy, and by doing so, has also defended independent schools across Vermont. Lovett’s tireless efforts in this area have helped to preserve the independent school education structure and tradition in the state.
Upon the Academy’s 175th anniversary, Lovett remarked: “We currently serve 694 day students from over 40 towns from Vermont and northern New Hampshire and 260 boarders from 24 countries and 17 states. We offer a comprehensive curriculum spanning over 230 courses in 13 departments. We offer over 30 AP courses, over a dozen dual enrollment courses, over 40 fine and performing art classes, and as the regional technical center, over 30 career and technical education classes. We run our own restaurant; we have pre-professional programs in biomedical, engineering, and natural resource management; and our Capstone program has been used as a model by The College Board.” St. Johnsbury Academy is in a very strong position thanks to the work of Tom Lovett and his team.
In a letter written on behalf of the St. Johnsbury Academy Board of Trustees, Board President Jay Wright ’87 commended Lovett. His sentiment is shared by Academy faculty and staff: “On behalf of the Board of Trustees of this great school, profound gratitude goes to Tom and the team that is St. Johnsbury Academy. We are in a greater place because of their contributions. The little city on the hilltop is shining brightly. Well done, indeed.”
The Academy Board of Trustees will oversee the search for Headmaster Lovett’s successor. Jay Wright said, “As the Board did when it had to replace Headmaster Colby in the 19th century to the appointment of Tom succeeding Headmaster Mayo at the dawn of the 21st century, we will look to select a leader who can continue the critically important work of St. Johnsbury Academy as an independent, comprehensive, diverse secondary school serving the students of St. Johnsbury and surrounding communities. Our local partnerships are essential to that work and we will continue to pursue efforts that support our students and families, and our way of life here in St. Johnsbury and in the other communities whose children rely on the Academy for their high school education.”
Tom Lovett closed his letter to the Board announcing his retirement as follows: “Each year in May, I have encouraged the senior class to learn to leave gracefully, gratefully, and graciously—repairing relationships where they have been damaged, saying thanks to those who have helped them along the way, and continuing to share their gifts to the very end. I promise to do my best to take my own advice over the next 18 months and continue to follow wherever I am called thereafter.”