Greenhills School turns fifty with a furor, a face-lift, and a familiar face.
by Jan Schlain
From the September, 2018 issue
In 2015, Peter Fayroian, then head of the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, lost his sister, Barbara, to complications from Type One juvenile diabetes. He spoke about it in his commencement address the following May. "She was, according to her doctors at the University of Michigan, one of the few people they've seen live with the disease for sixty-four years. And she only did so because teams of intellectual, compassionate, and talented medical researchers, physicians, and advocates have been for the past seventy-five years actively seeking better ways to treat and cure this pernicious disease.
"They weren't born at thirty years old with a lab coat and a mission," Fayroian continued. "They were once like you, lucky teenagers with opportunity and promise who answered the call of a world that needed them. As a result, my daughter had an aunt. And as a result, young people today with Type One diabetes ... will live long, productive lives well past sixty-five years old."
In September, Fayroian will meet a new crop of lucky teenagers, this time in Ann Arbor. Before Northfield Mount Hermon, he was head of Greenhills School for seven years. Last year, with Greenhills in turbulent waters, it turned to him again.
Annie Rubin, a Greenhills parent, says Fayroian is just what Greenhills needs. "There's been some unrest," she says, "and some competition."
The competition is the Ann Arbor Public Schools' International Baccalaureate program. Like a Greenhills degree, the IB confers an edge in college admissions. The unrest centered on Fayroian's successor, Carl Pelofsky.
Pelofsky "was beloved for the earlier years he was here," Rubin says. But other parents say he changed after his wife died in 2015. "He was very angry," says one who asked not to be identified. "The board started getting letters from parents, teachers, and students ... they were concerned." Pelofsky took a sabbatical at the end of the 2016-2017 school year and never returned.
A former head of school, Dave
McDowell, had gone on to run the local Ronald McDonald House and had since retired. The board asked him to step in during their national search for a replacement.
Greenhills enrolls more than 520 students in grades six through twelve. Even in Ann Arbor's hypercompetitive academic environment, it sets the bar in terms of parental expectations for high test scores and admission to selective colleges. And it's ramping up its offerings. Thanks to a $6-$6.5 million capital campaign, a new "twenty-first-century library" (complete with 3-D printers) opens this month, along with a high-end lunch program provided by Plum Market. An all-weather track and field are in the works.
"Tuition? Oh boy," McDowell says, and then laughs. "I think when I left [in 1993], it was in the ten-thousand-to-twelve-thousand-a-year range ... Now it's edging up close to $25,000 a year, a little less in middle school."
The unrest needed to be addressed quickly. The boiling point, several parents say, came when Pelofsky fired longtime math teacher Josh Friendly in May 2017. (Friendly now teaches in the Dexter Community Schools.)
McDowell's return a few months later restored calm. "The idea was to provide some continuity," he says. "It's not like I knew all the details coming in, but I had enough background and frankly some very good administrative support." Assistant head of school Joyce Chance, he jokes, "is actually head of school, and I'm her assistant. I tell her that."
"I love working for Dave," says Chance. "Maybe because he's older, he has a calming presence." A gracious presence, too. This year's grads included one of Pelofsky's twin sons (the other graduated from Skyline). McDowell invited Pelofsky on stage to present the diploma. Pelofsky has since taken a job as interim head of the College School in St. Louis.
McDowell also saw Greenhills through one more crisis. After the #MeToo movement revealed sex abuse at several elite private schools, Greenhills hired a law firm to do an independent assessment of its school climate. In a letter to parents, McDowell wrote that it found no legal violations, but a longstanding teacher was terminated for "failing to maintain appropriate boundaries with some of our former students."
Northfield Mount Hermon had done its own investigation earlier, and Fayroian also fired a veteran teacher. He is fifty-six, and this will be his thirty-first year teaching in or leading independent schools. But he wasn't a prep school kid himself.
"I graduated with a thousand of my closest friends from Livonia Bentley High School," he emails, "which closed a year after I graduated." U-M anthropologist Penelope Eckert wrote a book about that suburban Detroit school called Jocks & Burnouts. The title alone, Fayroian notes, says a lot about the "lexicon and social categories" at his high school. "I always tell folks that I was interested in education early in my life because of that experience, i.e., because I knew even in high school that there HAD to be a better way to do all this ..."
Board president Jennifer Conlin emails that in addition to the new library and lunch program, Greenhills has "a defending state soccer championship team, and a senior class with a 69.5 percent acceptance rate to U-M (48 of the 69 students that applied were admitted, while the national accept rate is 22 percent). We also have a debate and forensics team that is a perennial powerhouse in the state of Michigan." At their new "Detroit day," she adds, "the entire school of more than 600 people, including students, faculty, and staff volunteer there for a day at nonprofits."
"Peter's coming back to a new face-lift," says McDowell. "He'll need to do more fundraising, which he's very good at, by the way."
Jan Toth-Chernin, Greenhills' director of information technology, says that in his first term as head, Fayroian helped everyone think bigger. "When the faculty said they couldn't change the time school began and ended because they used Ann Arbor Public School buses, Peter said, 'Then let's get our own buses.'" She describes him a risk-taker who "has a lot of confidence in himself. He doesn't accept answers like, 'We've tried that, and it didn't work.' He will continue to ask questions and explore new venues."
"What I'll bring back to Greenhills after my 6 years away will be more experience, but I would have that anyway even if I hadn't left," Fayroian emails. "I'm also coming back with two of my own kids, and in this regard I suppose I have a more profound appreciation for the women and men who teach and care for others' children.
"When I leave my kids at preschool and elementary school, I leave them with the confidence that they are known and loved. Nothing is more important than that, and I know my colleagues at Greenhills believe this as well."
[Originally published in September, 2018.]
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