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Q&A with: Michael K. Mulligan, The Thacher School, Ojai, CA
As a follow-up to Cammie Bertram’s column about considering schools that are far from home, this is the first of a series profiling schools from different regions of the country. The Thacher School exemplifies how some boarding schools in western states take advantage of natural resources in profound ways. Michael Mulligan has been Head of School at Thacher since 1993.
Q: Where do Thacher students come from?
A: Our student body of 250 includes students from 25 states throughout the country. Families from other parts of the country may be more familiar with boarding schools in the East, than those in the West. But when parents and students from anywhere come to visit Thacher, they are amazed at the community of learners and leaders that we have created.
What makes Thacher unique?
A: Secondary school at Thacher is a life-changing experience. In 1889, our founder believed that a worthwhile education must combine a vigorous academic life with self-reliance and concern for others. With that in mind, we have created a school culture of responsibility, tenacity, and grit. We focus on process—the processes of developing intellectual acumen, of succeeding as performers, of becoming athletes, and of serving the community. Our students realize that happiness is a byproduct of service to others. These lessons are a blueprint for a life well-lived and lifelong health.
How does Thacher’s setting connect to the school’s program?
A: Outside our door, we have 500 miles of wilderness stretching across the Los Padres National Forest. We are also 20 miles from the coast and close to the Channel Islands. But it is not sufficient just to have an extraordinary natural setting. What is important is how Thacher makes meaning around this. Our students camp in the backcountry, kayak, and ride horses. For many freshmen, their orientation trip is their first wilderness experience. They sleep on the ground and learn how to stay dry. Then, when they return to campus, we pair each freshman with a horse. Learning horsemanship and taking care of these complex, sentient beings shifts students’ perceptions of who they are.
We use these experiences to teach students about hard work, not giving up, and working with others. This is the foundation of a philosophy that represents the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
What are academics like at Thacher?
A: A hallmark of our academic program is that we are increasingly taking content out of its individual silos and integrate it. For example, we have a science in society course where students examine questions from biological and social perspectives. The very culture of Thacher promotes self-directed learning, so all of our seniors do a capstone project, which includes presenting in-depth research at a public symposium.
What is special about extracurricular activities at Thacher?
A: In addition to our outdoor programs, we require students to engage in athletics, performing arts, and visual arts. We challenge students to try so many different things because doing so helps them build a strong sense of self. If you do not know who you are, you won’t succeed.