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July 24, 2023 Corner Office

Choate private school leader Curtis focuses on new revenue streams, sustainability and student safety

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Alex Curtis, head of school at Choate Rosemary Hall, a prominent boarding school in Wallingford.
Alex Curtis at a glance
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For most businesses, competition boils down to a mix of price, product quality, brand reputation, customer service and marketing.

But what happens when you’re at the top of your field? When price and product quality aren’t deciders? When your brand is so strong your clients are loyal and powerful allies? When you’ve got more would-be clients than you can handle?

If that sounds like a recipe for a good night’s sleep, don’t tell Alex Curtis, head of school at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford. He’ll tell you he feels comfortable with everything he can plan for, but the unpredictable, unplanned events keep him up at night.

Choate and Rosemary Hall share both parentage and physical roots in Wallingford.

Mary Atwater Choate started Rosemary Hall as a school for girls in 1890. Six years later, her husband, Judge William Choate, started Choate as a school for boys on another portion of the family’s land in Wallingford.

In 1900, Rosemary Hall decamped for Greenwich, not to return until 1970. In 1974, the two schools came together as Choate Rosemary Hall.

Today, Choate ranks in the top handful of secondary schools in America. Only Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., routinely scores higher.

Its student body of about 860 enjoys top facilities, top teachers and a culture that builds on the school’s illustrious history of its graduates and their accomplishments.

But Choate is obsessed with looking ahead, not back, and it challenges students to “become what’s next” and “be undefinable,” according to Curtis.

It’s a philosophy that matches Choate’s unique situation, but it also reflects the experiences of its leader.

Digital age

Curtis grew up in London and says he felt constrained by England’s deference to tradition and the way things have always been done. He was drawn to the American dream and its promise that all things are possible.

When the opportunity arose, he made his way to Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, and then to Princeton, where he earned his doctorate.

A new world opened up, he recalls. He found his passion in archaeology, art and architectural history. And he discovered a love of teaching.

He still teaches, leading a course on Choate’s history told through the campus’ rich architecture.

Curtis took over as head of school in 2011, after working at Princeton Day School and spending seven years as headmaster of Morristown-Beard School in New Jersey.

He is married to Elizabeth Fecko-Curtis, director of product management at Educational Testing Service, a private nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization. They have two sons, Morgan (Choate Class of 2017) and Sam (Class of 2020).

Part of his motivation is assuring no Choate student ever feels as trapped as young Curtis had felt in England.

His focuses have included leading the school into the digital age by placing iPads in the hands of all students and teachers, ramping up diversity, equity and inclusion programs and investing heavily in sustainability efforts.

He points with pride to LEED-certified buildings dotting the 458-acre campus, and he is pushing hard to reach net-zero sustainability long before the stated goal of 2050.

Bryan Garsten of North Haven, who graduated in 1992 and has a son on campus today, likes what he’s seeing.

“The biggest challenge for an institution with a prestigious history like Choate’s is to maintain the good parts of its traditions but not rest on its laurels,” Garsten says. “I’ve been so impressed to see how Choate has managed to renew itself. The student population is more diverse, as is the faculty. The curriculum has balanced sensible updates with the traditional strengths.”

Cost to attend

High on Curtis’ agenda is getting word out that the school is not just for the children of the global elite. Locals are a priority, he says, pointing to enrollment data showing about 25% are day students, meaning they commute to classes daily.

He’s eager to debunk the idea that the school is only for those who can pay the posted rate of $68,380 for boarding students and $52,880 for day students.

To attract the best students, the ones who will benefit most from Choate’s challenging culture, the conversation comes down to “What can the family afford?” Curtis says.

According to the school’s website, Choate’s financial aid budget for the 2022-23 school year was $14.1 million, with awards to families ranging from $3,000 to full tuition.

For the same school year, 32% of students at Choate received need-based financial aid; the average award offset 79% of tuition.

So, with price not as big of a factor, what’s the line that closes the deal with parents and students?

It’s about building on an expectation of responsibility and trust, Curtis says, and setting the stage for accomplishment tuned to the needs of the individual.

And of course, there is the 7-1 teacher-student ratio and special programs — from robotics and climate science to arts programs and athletic teams — all of which produce graduates ready to excel, he says.

Big endowment

But none of that comes cheap.

Choate has an endowment approaching a half-billion dollars, but perhaps more importantly, it has a wealth of active alumni who have shown a willingness to pitch in.

Many of the buildings bear the names of graduates who led fundraising efforts that routinely run from $100 million to $200 million.

In its most recently available tax filing, Choate reported $80.5 million in fiscal year 2021 revenue, down from pre-pandemic levels.

Like any business, Choate is on the prowl for new revenue streams. Taking on more students while maintaining the culture at the Wallingford campus isn’t practical. But the strategic plan calls for an exploration of opening additional campuses, or forming “global partnerships.”

Strong Asian ties — and 15 students from Singapore arriving next fall — offer some possibilities, as does the level of interest from the West Coast. About 10% of last year’s students were from California.

Alison Cady, the school’s chief communications officer, confirms Curtis has traveled internationally this year for conversations.

“Stay tuned,” she says.

Meanwhile, back on the Wallingford campus, next up is construction of a welcome center to improve those important visits by parents and students considering Choate.

And then there are those unplanned, unpredictable events that keep Curtis up at night.

A decade after the Sandy Hook school shooting, and just months after a mass shooting at a private school in Nashville, Curtis says he feels Choate’s security plan is strong.

But is it enough? Is there more that can or should be done? There’s no way to know, and that weighs on Curtis.

Student safety is paramount, he acknowledges.

Meantime, several sexual misconduct cases that have come to light over the last decade have drawn negative attention to the school. One — involving incidents that allegedly occurred years ago — resulted in the dismissal of a faculty member last year.

Sudden blows to its reputation and/or the perception of student safety seem among the few threats to the school, which next year celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Choate-Rosemary Hall merger.

Yet, those threats are plenty to keep any business leader up at night.

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