Well-Traveled Educator Returns to Granite State to Lead Crossroads Academy in Lyme

Tuesday, January 13, 2015
One minute, he was embarking on another summer at a YMCA camp on Lake Winnepesaukee’s Alton Bay.

The next minute, young Brad Weston was turning onto a long career path in education, a route that would take him far from his native New Hampshire. Brad Weston Choyt returns to his home state to take the reins at Crossroads Academy in Lyme later this year.

“I was 15, and I’d been going to that camp since I was five,” Choyt, 50, recalled during a telephone conversation last week. “When a counselor they were expecting backed out, they asked me if I wanted to try it. After that summer, I knew I wanted to work with younger people, have a chance to help them grow.

“I wanted them to have a good experience.”

The ways that Choyt, over the ensuing decades, collected a bachelor’s degree from Brown University, a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania, and a wide range of experiences in education, in the arts and in travel around the world, moved him to the front of the parade of candidates for the position that Jean Behnke will leave at the end of the current academic year.

“Four finalists went through an intense, two-day interview process, meeting with faculty, staff, parents, trustees and even students,” Sean Gorman, chairman of the board, recalled recently. “Brad was an impressive candidate from the very beginning. Even among our four finalists, it was striking how he stood out on virtually every important criterion we had identified in a head of school. He exhibited an educational philosophy consistent with our school mission — Strong Minds, Kind Hearts. He has a history of carrying this philosophy through in the schools he led. Just as importantly, he showed an ability to convey an energy and passion behind his philosophy and vision that were engaging to all of us.”

Crossroads has roughly 120 students in kindergarten to grade 8, under a system based on educator E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum and a related program of Core Virtues. Choyt said he plans to encourage students to try as many things as possible before deciding where to go, and to embrace learning beyond the classroom.

“There are studies from the U.S. Department of Labor that show that college kids are probably going to have five different careers in their lifetimes,” Choyt said. “They’ll be using technologies that haven’t been invented yet. It’s important to stay open to rapidly changing times.

“One of the things I like about Core Knowledge is that you have that base to draw from going into different jobs, different professions.”

On its website, Crossroads cites Hirsch’s definition of the curriculum as “a body of solid, shared, specific, and sequenced knowledge most essential for literacy in contemporary American society.” Along with a focus on “essential concepts and facts in history, literature, geography, mathematics and science,” the independent day school says it enriches the curriculum “with music, visual and performing arts, physical education, and world languages.”

“I came across Hirsch’s work while I was in college,” Choyt said. “I’ve been re-reading some of the older parts and catching up with the newer material.”

During this academic year, which he’s taking off to care for his children in southern Maine, Choyt also is bringing himself up to speed with the Core Virtues principles on which Mary Beth Klee founded Crossroads. In its mission statement, the academy describes Core Virtues as “centered upon the four cardinal virtues of justice, wisdom, courage and temperance as well as the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. … (W)e strive to foster these character traits through discussions of the virtues, through illustrations of virtues in literature and history, through prayerful reflection, through community service, and through the ethos and tone of conduct in our school and playgrounds.”

“It’s relatively new for me,” Choyt said of Core Virtues. “But I think it works well with Core Knowledge.”

Choyt credits a teacher and an advisor at Phillips-Exeter Academy with re-enforcing his inclination to work with young people.

“These two individuals saw me as a whole person and helped me make connections between my studies and the way I was beginning to understand the world as a young adult,” he recalled. “They were important role models as I was choosing professions and considering work in independent schools.”

At Brown, Choyt earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art, religious studies and art history.

“I also enrolled in classes in the Department of Education nearly every semester, and was fortunate to study with exceptional professors,” Choyt recalled. “While completing my MFA (in painting, printmaking and sculpture at the University of Pennsylvania), I continued to take course in the humanities and taught classes at Penn’s College of General Studies in my final year as a graduate student.”

He also pursued an education in the ways of the world.

“In the 1980s (during which he changed his surname to Choyt, for reasons he declined to explain), I lived and studied abroad for extended periods ... first completing a junior year in Israel and Nepal and later returning to the Himalaya region on a fellowship from Brown,” Choyt recalled. “Whenever the opportunity arose, I visited schools in different corners of the world. I was always curious about how other cultures viewed and structured education.”

After completing his master’s degree at Penn in 1993, Choyt taught for five years at Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut. And near the end of his fifth year teaching at St. Paul’s School in Concord, just up the road from his hometown of Bedford, N.H., the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, which focuses on the art of the Himalayan region, offered him the position of director of education. Three days later, his wife, Charlotte Bacon, then a teacher of creative writing at the University of New Hampshire, received a fellowship at the New York Public Library.

They took the hint. And Choyt took another hint when, after two years of training the museum’s tour guides to engage visitors as they looked at the art, he met a couple planning to start an off-the-grid, independent school on the Indonesian island of Bali, with a focus on sustainability.

“I was leading them on a tour (of the museum), and they invited me to tea, where we talked about their plans to launch the school,” Choyt said. “It sort of went from there.”

During his subsequent two years at The Green School, Choyt met New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who he said “inspired me to think of how the world is changing, growing flatter. A lot of that really resonated with me. As educators, we need to model an approach of being in the world for our students. If they can’t see it in us, how can we show them the ways they can go?”

With the Green School up and running, Choyt and his family returned to the United States, where he became head of the independent, New York-based Blue School, which the original members of the performance-art team Blue Man Group had founded for pre-schoolers and elementary-school students.

Then in 2011, a head of school position opened at North Yarmouth Academy in southern Maine, and Choyt and his wife, who now had three children, returned to New England. In addition to overseeing the faculty and working on strategic planning, Choyt started writing essays on education for Maine’s largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald. During his final academic year at North Yarmouth, he opened a column about the explosion of information in the Internet age.

“Around our dinner table, some question often floats to the top of the conversation,” the essay begins. “With children (then) ages 2, 6 and 12, the scope varies. ‘Do I have to eat broccoli?’ ‘Is the tooth fairy a boy or a girl?’ ‘How many people in India are Hindu, how many are Muslim, how many are Sikh?’

“Some of these require parental improvisation. Some we can answer with a little reflection. But it’s amazing to realize how many of my wife’s and my response could contain some form of ‘No idea. Let’s Google it.’

“And it’s not just at our house of course, where this discussion plays out. It’s a response that’s possible in almost any context now, especially at schools.”

Choyt has been around the house for more such family discussions since last spring, when he stepped down from North Yarmouth.

“My wife became the executive director for (the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a full-time position that requires a great deal of travel,” Choyt said. “Over the summer and in the early fall, I focused on conducting a search for my next administrative position.”

Soon enough, the road led Choyt to the Upper Valley.

“Brad is coming to a very different Crossroads than (Behnke) did in 2002,” Gorman said. “After 13 years under Jean’s leadership, Crossroads is now in a strong financial position: She led the $6-million campaign for our Bancroft campus facility, established the endowment and strengthened the school’s ability to offer students financial aid — about 25 percent of enrolled students. … She was precisely the type of leader that Crossroads needed during this period of growth.

“Now, as she retires, Crossroads faces a new set of challenges and opportunities that Brad is well-suited to navigate. For example, in our more global and technologically connected world, what modifications should educators make to the curriculum? What are best practices for approaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education? How can we better incorporate our 140-acre woodland campus into a program of experiential learning? These are topics that Brad has tackled in his previous positions and will be prepared to address successfully in this next phase of Crossroads’ development.”

At least when he’s indoors.

“I was born in Manchester and grew up in Bedford, amidst fields, small ponds and hills covered in mountain laurel and white pines,” Choyt said. “My elder son, who was also born in New Hampshire refers to my childhood years as the ‘unsupervised ’70s,’ when kids scrambled over neighbors’ fences, skidded around on five-speed bikes, and built elaborate forts in the woods. Almost anything was fair game as long as we were home by dinner. I am thrilled to provide my children with the kind of environment where they can learn and play in a neighborhood with friends their ages surrounded by beautiful landscapes — though my wife and I anticipate providing a bit more supervision along the way.”

And how many years will he supervise Crossroads?

“In the short term, the goal is to get to know the community, getting a better sense of what the culture of the school is, what the community needs to prosper,” Choyt said. “In the long term, I plan to enter into a process of developing a strategic plan with the board. That will dictate the long-term goals.

“I’m hoping that it’s a long stay.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.