WILLIAMSTOWN - For the first time in 30 years, Buxton School has appointed a new director. Peter Smith, a teacher at Buxton and co-director with William Bennett since 2008, will become the school's fourth director on July 1. Bennett will step down after 25 years as director and five years as co-director.
As with Benjamin Fincke, Buxton's second director, Bennett will become director emeritus. He will continue teaching junior and senior English and contributing in various ways to the life of the school.
"The motive for Bill's decision is his desire to ensure an orderly and effective future for the leadership of the School," wrote Graeme Fincke, president of the Board of Trustees and son of the former director, in a letter to the Buxton community. "His Co-Directorship with Peter has already put this in motion."
Franny Shuker-Haines, who oversees the development office and is director of admissions, will continue as associate director of the school, a position she has held for eight years.
Fincke described Buxton as an organization that benefits from operating largely without hierarchical relationships; each member of the leadership team will continue to function at many levels - as both teachers and administrators.
Smith graduated from Buxton in 1974, and then worked in New York City as an actor and technician. He returned to Buxton in 1984 to teach elementary Spanish and geometry. In recent years he has taught drama and directed the school's seasonal theater productions.
Smith also helps to organize the annual all-school trips, and has been involved in nearly every aspect of campus life. He played a central role in the founding of a new arts complex on campus and the expansion of the school's summer arts programming.
Buxton was founded in 1928 by Ellen Geer Sangster as a coeducational country day school in Short Hills, N.J. After a successful beginning, Sangster aspired to fulfill her vision of a more experiential type of education. In 1947 she relocated the school to her family's summer estate on South Street in Williamstown.
The residential campus on 120 acres allowed for an educational experience that engaged every aspect of a student's life and helped to foster a full range of life skills. Those principles remain at the core of the school's philosophy.
"It's really built around a progressive model," Smith said, "- and a lot of the structures of progressive education have become very mainstream, but the spirit of the place is very similar to what it was when it was founded."
A co-educational curriculum, an emphasis on residential life and the daily work program have always been central to the Buxton experience, Smith said. The annual all-school trip, organized largely by the students themselves, is just one example of the school's focus on experiential learning.
Last year Buxton had 85 boarders and 10 day students and was operating near capacity. With a small community, Smith said, students can have a direct influence on the school community. While growing the student body has not been a priority, one of the challenges Buxton faces is increasing its reach in terms of admissions, development and alumni relations.
"The school is not terribly well-known," Smith said. "It has a very good reputation within a small community of progressive educators, but it really needs to get itself on the map better than it has been able to in its history."
Many private secondary schools in the United States began under the direction of concerned educators, whose interests did not always include administration, Smith said. Focusing mostly on education itself, those institutions came to establish development and other administrative offices relatively late in life.
"That certainly has been true with Buxton," he said. "Our admissions functioned by word of mouth for many years, and we weren't in a position where we had to promote ourselves. But I think increasingly we've got ourselves in a position where we do have to do that more aggressively."
Shuker-Haines will play an important role in those efforts, wrote Fincke. "In the years ahead, she will have major responsibility to build and expand Buxton's connections to the outside world, particularly to other schools, with the aim of expanding the reach of our admissions office."
Bennett, Smith and Shuker-Haines will each continue teaching classes and participating in campus life.
"It's always been a model at the school that administrators also are pretty deeply immersed in the life of the school as teachers or even as people in residence," Smith said. Shuker-Haines has taught at Buxton for 16 years, and Bennett since the late 1960s. In the fall, Smith will begin his 30th year as a member of the Buxton faculty.