Each day of the academic year, Associate Head of School Ryan Pagotto ’97 upholds a tradition that he began 11 years ago when he moved into his role. Standing under the stone archway of Clinton Hall, he pulls open the sturdy door and, holding it, greets students by name as they walk to their classes. He converses with many of them, chatting about what’s going on in their lives and making sure that new students feel welcome. With 97 new ninth graders and 380 additional students weaving through campus at the start of this school year, it’s no easy feat to recall each student’s name on the first day of class, but Mr. Pagotto is glad to dedicate himself to the task. “New students are often excited and eager on the first day of school, but there’s also often an element of anxiety. Our role as educators is to help them through that,” he explains. He hopes that, by making a point of connecting with students at the start of each day, they understand that he is there to support them.
As Associate Head of School, part of Mr. Pagotto’s job is to connect with students in different capacities and ensure that Blair is delivering on its mission of knowing our students well. And so students often find him popping up—in the dining hall, at Skeptics lectures, art openings, in the doorway of Clinton and wherever they are—to talk, to listen and to ensure that Blair’s community members are supporting students in all aspects of their lives. After 22 years of working with adolescents, Mr. Pagotto feels strongly that health and wellness play a critical role in fulfilling that mandate.
“We’ve been fortunate to retain faculty who know our kids and understand the importance of being a presence in their lives,” he explains. “Our counseling team is a critical resource as we support students’ psychological and emotional health. The first step in helping them acquire those wellness skills is knowing our students well and being a part of their lives.”
Regular Exercise Is Required
Mr. Pagotto, who is one of several dedicated teachers leading health-and-wellness initiatives on campus, says that in Blair Academy’s earliest years, exercise was central to the cultural understanding of student wellness. A reference from the 1883 catalog states, “Daily exercise in the open air is required except when the weather forbids. Calisthenics for the girls and military drill for the boys, three times a week.” After 100 years of operation, the School continued to emphasize the importance of physical health; the 1948 Blair Academy Bulletin records that, in addition to seasonal sports, “Regular exercise is required of all boys who are not exempt for special reasons.”
A Modern, Holistic Approach
In the last quarter century, Blair has embraced a more holistic approach as our understanding of wellness has broadened to encompass the mental, emotional and social factors, as well as physical, that impact student well-being.
Former director of health services at Blair, Diane Sauvé, RN, joined Blair in 1987 at a time when she recalls perceptions evolving. As director of the Hoffman Health Center, Mrs. Sauvé supervised the community’s medical needs and taught health class once a week to students.“We worked hard to incorporate mental health, counseling and athletics as part of an integrated approach to health services,” she recalls. “It was a different time, though. This was before computers, and we didn’t have access to the Internet yet,” Mrs. Sauvé says. “To give students information, the School invested in bringing in experts as a resource for kids in addition to regular health classes. We also held a good number of health fairs, bringing in professional health organizations to share information and conduct preventive screenings.”
Some issues, such as the need for deep and regular sleep, impacted students just as much then as today. “As soon as students got cell phones,” she remembers, “It became apparent that family and friends would call students on their time, which could be the middle of the night here. Getting enough sleep could be a problem!”
As time passed, Blair continued to find new ways to support student health. In the last decade, as part of Blair’s All In Strategic Plan, the School recognized the role that peers play in well-being and started an extracurricular group called “Be Well @ Blair” to create positive change on campus through peer health education. Last year, a meditation garden was opened to all members of the Blair community. Located in a clearing beside the woods and overlooking Lake Genevieve on the Siegel Property, the garden offers students, faculty and staff a calm and peaceful spot to practice meditation or simply take a breath.
New This Year
In the 2022-2023 school year, Blair will continue to support student wellness through enhanced curriculum, new dining options and added mental health resources. Seeking to give students a strong base with two years of health-and-wellness education, Blair is shifting the curriculum of LEADS, the School’s signature leadership education initiative, to focus more on health and wellness. “Now students will start with ninth-grade seminar followed by 10th-grade LEADS class, providing them with weekly touchpoints about wellness,” Mr. Pagotto explains. “We are also continuing our Be Well talks, which are peer-led presentations and discussions on defined topics.”
In addition to curricular enhancement, one change this year that excites many students is a switch to dining provider Flik. Along with offering a wide variety of fresh and local meal options, Flik educates students about healthful eating habits. As part of the fall student orientation process, for instance, Flik’s on-staff nutritionists addressed dietary choices with students while preseason athletes had the opportunity to sit down with certified nutritionist Dr. Joseph Stanzione ’08 about optimal eating to support athletic skill, strength, endurance and recovery.
Finally, Blair is adding counseling and support resources for students and teachers this year. The School has hired a chaplain, as well as a Dean of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, brought a third full-time counselor to campus and provided mental health training to teachers at the start of the year. “Mental health needs of youth have been increasing nationally,” Mr. Pagotto says. “Our hope is that this training will help us build on the good work we already do with our students by giving us additional tools to best reach those who may be struggling and that it will help our educators support teens beyond Blair.”
This year’s new resources augment the excellent work done by Blair’s school counselors, faculty and staff to take good care of students. With those resources, the added wellness education and health support system, as well as preliminary plans underway for a new health-and-wellness center at Blair, Mr. Pagotto trusts that each and every student he high-fives in the Clinton doorway on the first morning of classes is well-equipped to live the most positive and productive school year yet.