Chancellor Stephen Spahn’s Milestone Anniversary of Igniting the Spark of Genius in Every Child
On this very special occasion — 50 years in the making! — we pay tribute to the man who has been at the helm of our school and community for a record-breaking five decades. Chancellor Stephen Spahn is distinguished as the longest-serving head of an independent school in the United States; perhaps the longest-serving head of any school anywhere!
It is impossible to capture here the breadth and depth of Chancellor Spahn’s contributions to the world of education nor to the thousands of students he inspired and whose lives he has impacted. We can share some history and early influences, ground-breaking firsts, and enduring beliefs that characterize Chancellor Spahn’s tenure and compel him forward as he envisions the future of education at Dwight for new generations of students to come.
EARLY ROLE MODELS AT HOME
Spearheading a school runs in the Spahn family. For a quartercentury, Chancellor Spahn’s father, Dr. M.C. Spahn, served as Headmaster of the Franklin School, which later became the Anglo-American International School and ultimately joined forces with Dwight in 1993.
Under Dr. Spahn’s leadership from 1950-75, Franklin flourished in the post-World War II era and moved into the future by welcoming girls and expanding facilities. He had arrived a few years prior in 1946, to teach math and brought his son to school every day to attend kindergarten. As a child and later as a young man, Stephen observed his father at work, ultimately joining him on campus from 1966-68 to work in college guidance and teach philosophy and economics.
Stephen learned many lessons from his father, foremost among them that with will, anything is possible; and to always maximize students’ strengths. Both come as no surprise, as Dr. Spahn was a former pro basketball player and coach, who applied much of the same thinking when instructing players on his teams at West Point and his alma mater, City College. It also comes as no surprise that at Franklin, students affectionately called him “Coach.”
While getting his feet wet by teaching at Franklin, Stephen also shadowed his father’s counterpart and colleague at Dwight, Headmaster Winton L. Miller, Jr. Preparing to take the reins from Mr. Miller, Stephen worked in admissions and college guidance, and learned how to design curriculum schedules. He crisscrossed Central Park to and from Franklin on the West Side and Dwight on the East Side, soaking up knowledge at both schools.
Serving equally as an early role model was Stephen’s mother, Ruth, who stressed the fundamental message to her children that when you fall — literally and figuratively — always get up no matter how difficult it may be. Her strength also showed itself to generations of girls at Tripp Lake Camp in Maine, which the Spahns owned and under whose direction many campers learned how to become leaders.
Combining the fundamentals learned from his parents, a teenage Stephen, whose passion was basketball, focused on his strength — shooting — and never gave up, becoming one of the best all-time shooters in the Ivy League.
Stephen excelled equally in academics as he did in sports, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College with a BA in history in 1963. He continued his education at Oxford University’s Wadham College, and completed coursework for a PhD at Columbia University, where he was an International Fellow and a Woodrow Wilson Scholar.
While studying at Wadham College, the Warden, Maurice Bowra, introduced Stephen to the Head of Educational Studies, Alec Peterson, who was instrumental in creating the International Baccalaureate and served as its first Director-General. Stephen credits both men as mentors and Alec Peterson especially for expanding his own perspective. At that time, the world was becoming more globalized and Alec Peterson characterized what constituted being a well-educated person in the new era: “If relocated anywhere in the world, he or she will not only be able to survive, but also thrive and prosper.” This underscores the early — yet enduring — value of the IB in preparing students to be global leaders.
Stephen, who had been shaped by experiences working abroad during his college years, championed the IB and its emphasis on international-mindedness, ultimately serving on the Board of Governors and as a founding member of the Guild of IB Schools of the Northeast. He also saw the need to cross borders decades ahead of other educators at home. In 1972, together with Sir Maurice, he launched Dwight School London, making Dwight the first independent school in the U.S. to establish a campus abroad.
Chancellor Spahn shares that his journeys around the world as a young man and early working experiences with some of the leaders of the day, are among the most defining influences on his life that shaped his global perspective.
The recipient of a public service fellowship while at Dartmouth College, the Chancellor interned for the UN Special Fund — today’s UNDP — to eradicate locust breeding grounds in 20 African countries. He worked with an early mentor, Paul Hoffman, the first to run the UN Development Program (and first administrator of the Marshall Plan after WW II).
After graduating, the Chancellor volunteered for The Dooley Foundation, which provides medical care to people in the developing world. His travels took him to Africa, where he met the honorary head of the Foundation, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, at his hospital in Lambaréné. Chancellor Spahn also ventured to India, where he helped to establish a mobile hospital for Tibetan refugees who had crossed the Himalayan mountains into India; participated in the first-ever health survey in Nepal; and visited a hospital in Ban Houei Sai, Laos. While in India, he had a chance to spend time with the young Dalai Lama, where they shared insights into Eastern and Western philosophies.
ASSUMING THE MANTLE AND INGRAINING OUR SPARK OF GENIUS PHILOSOPHY
When Stephen first became a young Headmaster in 1967-68, he codified hisfather’s belief that when you maximize a student’s strength in one arena, you openthe door to learning in all others, which is the cornerstone of Dwight’s signature spark of genius educational philosophy.
“I believe that every student — every human being — has a spark of genius. Every student has something at which he or she excels or can excel, and it is our job as educators to inspire young people to find and pursue that passion. If you believe in someone deeply, so can that person believe in him/herself,” asserts Chancellor Spahn. “I knew that I had the spark of genius in me, and my passion was to help students discover their own sparks. It remains my mission to this day.”
There are so many stories — thousands of success stories of Dwight graduates from the last half-century who have made or are making their marks on the world in every field imaginable, engendering pride in the Chancellor and their alma mater. So many credit him as a mentor and for seeing something unique in them before they could see it themselves — foreseeing a career or path traveled as adults.
Over the years, Stephen cultivated generations of teachers and supported their unique sparks of genius as well; only inspired faculty can do the same for students. Indeed, Dwight’s entire community is dedicated to supporting our spark of genius approach, nurturing happy, confident, and successful contributors to society.
In the early days, Dwight was an all-boys school located at 400 East 67 th Street in a 5,000-square-foot townhouse. Stephen’s office was located purposefully in the front hall so that he could better get to know each and every student, while also affording them easy access through his open-door policy. Stephen also established a tradition of greeting students at the entrance to school every morning, setting a personal tone that continues to this day with senior leaders doing the same at every entrance to our Main and Riverside Campuses.
In 1967, there were a mere 50 students at Dwight spanning grades 9-12. Almost immediately, two of the first things Stephen did was open the school to girls and add grades 6-8, expanding the student body, faculty, and facilities. In the years to come, grades 1-5 and then preschool and kindergarten were to follow. So, too, was a move across town bringing Dwight to the West 89 th Street site where Stephen’s father had served as Franklin’s Headmaster. There is an elegance to this full circle.
LEADING THE WAY AROUND THE WORLD AND INTO THE FUTURE
From a small boy’s school, a global network of five Dwight campuses would ultimately emerge, along with our campus in the cloud, Dwight Global Online School. In charting the course for Dwight, Stephen, together with outstanding administrators, faculty, and staff, broke new ground in international education — and continue to do so — providing students around the world with unprecedented learning opportunities.
“I am passionate about what I do,” shares Stephen. “The two primary sources of inspiration for me come from our guiding spark of genius philosophy and being on the frontier and innovating. I enjoy pushing the school forward and testing new ground. As those who know me know well that I have a hard time living in the present, as I’m always thinking about what’s next! I thrive in what the future holds and in bringing the best minds together to make possible now what we can envision our students will need to succeed tomorrow.”
Indeed those who know Stephen, including all of us at Dwight, can attest that his lifetime commitment begins and ends with students. They lie at the heart and soul of everything he does. He is tireless in his dedication, takes pride in their accomplishments, and is passionate about their passions.
Truly embodying the word “visionary” in all that entails, Stephen can oft be heard beginning a sentence exuberantly with one word: “Imagine ...”
Breaking New Ground
Invigorated by what’s to come, Chancellor Spahn and Dwight’s leadership team have embarked on an exciting path to expand our campus and take revolutionary leaps in education with one goal in mind: to prepare Dwight students for the jobs of the future.
As technology continues to transform our world so swiftly, disrupt markets, and reshape the nature of doing business every day, there is an urgent need for education to respond. Dwight is answering the call as a frontier school by taking the IB curriculum, which cultivates entrepreneurship, along with project-based and peer-to-peer learning, to new heights.
Dwight is also bringing the latest thinking to campus, offering faculty workshops, coaching, and a unique program called Frontier Innovation Leader Training, steeping participants in entrepreneurship, advanced research, design thinking, and innovation guided by some of the greatest minds in their fields.
These developments are combining with the construction of Dwight’s new building to extend our design lab, makerspace, and incubator experiences for students, nurturing collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and innovation skills so that they can excel in any and all endeavors. We look forward to sharing more about these initiatives and our new building opening next year in upcoming issues of Dwight Today!
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree: The Spahn Family Legacy in Education
Just as Chancellor Spahn had a front-row seat from which to observe and learn from his father, Dr. M.C. Spahn, as Headmaster of Franklin School, so too, did the Chancellor’s sons, Blake ’89 and Kirk ’95, have the invaluable opportunity to learn from their father. They grew up steeped in the intertwining of Spahn family and Dwight School traditions. Today, they are educational leaders who have embraced the advancement of innovative learning opportunities for students all over the world.
Blake Spahn ’89, Vice Chancellor of Dwight School
Following his days at Dwight, Blake received his BA and MBA degrees from Columbia University, where he was Captain of their undefeated Men’s Tennis Ivy League championship team.
He went on to obtain MA and PhD degrees in Comparative International Education from Oxford. Author of America and the International Baccalaureate, Blake has taught in classrooms in the US, UK, and Japan. In addition to founding Dwight’s preschool and kindergarten, he has had oversight of Dwight School London’s campus for the past 20 years. Blake co-founded BOOST (Building Opportunities on Student Talent), a non-profit designed to advance prospects for university students in Southern Africa, enabling them to contribute to their own countries’ development; and was a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Kirk Spahn ’95, Founder and Chairman of ICL
After graduating from Dwight, Kirk, a top junior tennis player, followed his father’s example by attending Dartmouth College, where he also played tennis and graduated with a BA. Kirk went on to earn an MA from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. In 2000, he launched The Institute for
Civic Leadership (ICL) to inspire and educate the next generation of young service leaders and social entrepreneurs to take positive action in their local and global communities. The award-winning, non-profit ICL provides funding, skills, and recognition needed to make the successful connection between passion and service — between ideas and real-world solutions. Kirk is also a founder of Dwight Global Online School, our campus in the cloud.
The Fourth Generation: Little Lions
Kyra ’23 and Ronin ’26 have the truly unparalleled opportunity to see their grandfather ― and both of their parents ― on the job across campus with Blake as Vice Chancellor and Maryll as the Associate Director of Admissions.
Alden, 11 months ― the littlest Dwight cub ― lives with parents Kirk and Jen on the West Coast, yet they are on campus often for Dwight Global events and community celebrations.
Could we see Kyra, Ronin, or Alden in leadership roles at Dwight in the future?
We’ll have to wait and see!
THE WOMAN ALONGSIDE THE MAN
The outdated nature of the idiom that dates back to the 1940s, “Behind every great man is a great woman,” is apparent. The woman who has stood alongside Stephen Spahn, Connie, for 50 years is a great example of how that notion was misguided from the very beginning!
Born in Denver, Connie studied at the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University, and Institut des Sciences Politiques in Paris. She and Stephen married young and set out together on a path of partnership in all things. They traveled the world while creating a home base for their family in New York City, with the growth and well-being of Dwight as central to their lives. For 20 of the last 50 years, Connie worked as Director of Admissions for our school.
Beyond campus, she has long been a leader and philanthropist supporting a range of non-profits, including Population Action International (PAI) a think tank in Washington devoted to helping women around the world. Connie served as Chairman of PAI and is a lifetime Honorary Trustee of the American Museum of Natural History.
Trailblazing Firsts in Global Education
Dwight is the first school in the U.S. to establish an international campus abroad in London
Dwight is the first school in NYC to offer the IB PYP — and the first in the US to offer all three IB programs
Dwight is one of the first schools to create a joint diploma program in China (with Beijing’s Capital Normal High School)
Dwight is selected by the Seoul Municipal Government from over 120 candidates to open the first IB model school in South Korea
Dwight in New York and London are selected from over 3,700 worldwide to pilot online education for the IB; Dwight NY later creates Dwight Global Online School
Dwight becomes the first school in the Americas to offer the comprehensive IB curriculum from preschool–grade 12
Dwight opens the Shanghai Qibao Dwight High School, the first non-profit, independent, Chinese-foreign collaborative high school
Dwight launches Spark Tank, an incubator to teach K-12 students entrepreneurial, innovation, and leadership skills beyond the classroom
Dwight becomes the first school in the US to be accredited by the World Federation of Sport
Dwight will open the first American based pre-K-12 school in Dubai
Three Small Words with Giant Potential
“Igniting the spark of genius in every child,” is more than a motto — it is a philosophy and guiding light. It is synonymous with teaching at Dwight and it can conjure up an inestimable number of possibilities.
A person’s “spark of genius” is an interest, pursuit, talent, or passion — whatever captures the mind, spirit, body, or imagination. It drives our personalized approach to learning, permeates the culture of our school, and differentiates Dwight from all others.
The premise is straightforward: When a child expresses a particular interest in, or talent for, something — whether in the arts, technology, advocacy, science, sports, etc. — that endeavor should be fostered. A nurturing teacher who taps into what excites a student opens the door to greater learning.
Working one-on-one with students, Dwight faculty members empower them to pursue their passions, believe in their talents, and seek their own unique path of learning. This personalized attention translates into greater mastery and success. At the same time, they gain greater self-confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of accomplishment that carries over into other areas both inside and outside the classroom.
As students grow, graduate, and move on to higher education and careers, their passions may change, evolve, or translate into life-long meaningful purpose. No matter the direction, when a spark is ignited, the potential is limitless. Dwight educators inspire children to believe that anything is possible and our alumni illustrate that this is true.
Father and Son on the Hardcourt
Trivia question: What do Jeremy Lin of the Brooklyn Nets, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, and Chancellor Stephen Spahn have in common? Answer at the end of this story.
Dwight’s long-standing scholar-athlete tradition is also deeply rooted in the Spahn family. Their legacy at the intersection of education and sports dates back to the 1930s, when Dr. M.C. (Moe) Spahn first became a basketball star at City College of New York — in those days, a national powerhouse — and later in the pros in the early, rough and tumble, pre-NBA days.
After retiring from the game, Dr. Spahn who had earned his PhD in Education from NYU, became Headmaster of Franklin School in 1950, and remained at the helm for 25 years. At Franklin, which evolved into Anglo-American International School and later joined forces with Dwight, students affectionately called him “Coach,” reflecting his role as mentor on and off the court.
Like his father before him, Chancellor Stephen Spahn was an All-American basketball player in college at Dartmouth. While his path did not lead to the pros, it converged with his father’s again in 1967, when he began his own career in education at Dwight. Today, as we mark Chancellor Spahn’s 50 th anniversary, we take a look back at the quite notable hardcourt achievements of father and son.
DR. M.C. (MOE) SPAHN: GUARD
After learning to play primarily in schoolyards and as an All-City player for Bryant High School in Queens, Moe joined the starting lineup at CCNY in 1931. The team won the Eastern championships in ’32 and ’33, with six-footer Moe as captain in ’33. He was named All-American and led CCNY in scoring.
His coach was the legendary Nat Holman, an early innovator of the game and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Coach Holman
considered Moe to be one of his ten greatest players. This is saying something since he coached CCNY for 36 seasons and his 1949-50 squad completed the singular feat of winning the NCAA and the NIT tournaments in the same season. Upon graduating in 1934, Moe joined Holman as Assistant Coach and began his graduate studies.
Moe also turned pro that year and played for teams in Newark, NJ, and New Britain, CT, finishing second in scoring in the fledgling American Basketball League (ABL) during his rookie year. He led the league in scoring in his second season with just under nine points per game. Contrast that with James Harden’s 32.2 points per game average this season and one can see that it was quite a different game back in Moe’s time. Pro basketball was in its start-up phase, with leagues and teams launching, failing, and restarting. During this time, and by necessity born of the pro game’s instability, Moe played with various teams that are now of a bygone era, including
the Brooklyn Visitations, the Jersey Reds, the New York Jewels, and the Philadelphia SPHAs.
The record shows that Moe enjoyed the most successful years of his career with the Jersey Reds, He led the team to the ABL championship series three years running, helping to clinch the title during 1937-38. That wasn’t the only hardware Moe took home that season; he earned the league’s MVP trophy after finishing second the two seasons prior. From 1934-38, he led the league in free throws and won an ABL title with the Wilmington Bombers in 1941-42. Retiring in 1943, he finished his career as the fifth alltime leading scorer in ABL history. Moe, a member of the CCNY Athletic Hall of Fame, was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
STEPHEN SPAHN: GUARD
Moe’s basketball career was a tough act to follow but his son was up to the challenge. Both were guards and both were top scoring threats. Stephen, at 6’1” and like his father, wasn’t especially tall. Nor was he fast enough to rely on speed, so he focused on his strength: shooting. He practiced, practiced, and practiced to become a great shooter —and more than succeeded.
At Great Neck High School, Stephen set a career scoring record of 900 points and was selected for the All-North Shore League and All-Nassau
County teams prior to attending Dartmouth. He followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming an All-American in college, where he established several scoring records from 1961-63. And, like his dad, Stephen also played under the tutelage of a Basketball Hall of Fame coach. Dartmouth’s Coach was Alvin “Doggie” Julian, who said that Stephen was the best long shooter he had ever had in the 11 years of coaching “Big Green.” Unlike the success Moe and his stellar CCNY squads enjoyed, the teams Stephen played on at Dartmouth did not win often, but that didn’t stop the future Chancellor from excelling.
As a junior, Stephen led the Ivy League, averaging 23.2 points per game, which still stands as the second-highest, single-season scoring average in Ivy League competition, trailing only Princeton’s (and future New York Knick and Senator) Bill Bradley, who averaged 27.5 points per game in the 1962-63 season. Stephen earned third team All-American honors for his stellar junior campaign. His record follows him today; Stephen currently ranks seventh in career-scoring average with 16.5 points per game and 13th on the Dartmouth all-time total points scored list with 1,206.
Trivia Question Answer: All three were All Ivy League basketball performers whose records still stand today!