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Built to Lead

Inside the Blake School, the state's greatest breeder of leaders (and why it's not what you'd expect)

Built to Lead
Photo by Thomas Strand
Blake leaders Blaine Crawford,
head of the student government;
Alisha Litman-Selle of Blake's Justice League;
Janhawi Kelkar of Blake's
student peer-leadership group.

(page 1 of 2)

Blaine Crawford, a senior at The Blake School, shakes my hand and looks me in the eye like he wants my vote. It’d have to be for best costume. Tall, slender, African American, he’s the head of the student government, a basketball standout, a championship debater, a former page in the United States Senate, and a student of Mandarin. But right now he’s wearing a silky pink mortarboard and gown. It’s Halloween, and even the type-A strivers at Blake are cutting loose.

We’re chatting in a conference room at the Upper School, a red-brick edifice with gothic windows and twin towers that overlook downtown Minneapolis from a slope near the Walker Art Center. Blake administrators, co-opting the stereotype imposed on them, sometimes call it “the fortress on the hill” or “the Harry Potter school,” always prefaced by “we don’t want to be.” Inside, an enormous Foucault pendulum swings from several stories up while students study around blazing fireplaces. Artworks collected by parents, staff, and alumni hang in a gallery. The halls are lined with academic awards named for top colleges: Vassar, Dartmouth, Amherst.

Blaine tells me: “In some schools, it’s not cool to be smart. Here, it definitely is.”

Blaine is a lifer, which means he’s been going to Blake since before kindergarten. He aspires to Georgetown University, among other schools, and eventually to politics. He has the aphorisms down cold: “Leaders inspire others to lead,” “Be who you are,” “Leave a legacy.”

If he succeeds—and 100 percent of Blake grads do go on to college—he’ll join a fraternity of alumni, known as Blakies, at the forefront of almost any discipline you can think of. No other school in Minnesota can claim such an outsized influence: two current governors are alums (Mark Dayton in Minnesota and Jack Dalrymple in North Dakota), as are Senator Al Franken, former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger, former Cargill CEO Whitney MacMillan, novelist Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), author and philanthropist Margaret Wurtele, CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow, entrepreneur Bill McLaughlin (Select Comfort), and new-media pioneer Soraya Darabi (former digital-marketing director for the New York Times).

Blaine leans forward, stretches his robed arms wide like a preacher, and tells me, “This place breeds leaders.”

At the highcroft campus in Wayzata, one of Blake’s two lower-school facilities, kids work in classes the size of large families. Amid more fireplaces and the moveable walls of an addition designed by alum Jim Dayton, they begin programming robots as early as kindergarten, accompanied, the tech teacher assures me, by a strong dose of ethics. “If you stomped everyone on your way to completing your project,” he says, “you didn’t do it right.” There is no religion component and there are no uniforms. The goal isn’t conformity, it’s critical thinking—“The one app,” jokes Anne Stavney, Blake’s new headmaster, “that doesn’t exist.”

In eighth grade, Blake kids deliver their first major speech. Their last, the senior speech, is given to the entire Upper School, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Most address public service or politics, though some students have come out as gay or discussed white privilege, subjects so compelling that much of the staff attends, too. Of recent speakers, one staffer told me, “I’d vote for them.” Eventually, she might.

Blake’s emphasis on argument and oratory fuels debate mania—four state titles since 1996, the most by any school in Minnesota, earned by a debate club that one student described to me as “a whole other universe,” a subculture of smarties. Critical thinking has been a Blake strength since some of the same industrialists who built up Minneapolis founded the original boys-only Blake  School in 1907, as a springboard to the Ivy Leagues. In the 1970s, Blake merged with two arguably more progressive independent schools, Highcroft in Wayzata and Northrop Collegiate School for girls in Minneapolis (now the Upper School), making Blake co-ed and eventually the largest independent school in Minnesota, a kind of leader incubator for its 1,400 students.

For a long time, Blakies boasted of this background. And then, for a long time, they did not. Cathy McLane, the school’s public-relations manager, told me, “There is enormous power that comes with a 113-year-old legacy of academic success, but that success is associated with prestige and privilege”—a liability in modest Minnesota. Here, all the kids are allegedly above average and the public schools have nearly made that trope a fact, averaging the highest ACT scores in the nation—without costing parents a dime. Blake tuition runs $14,100 a year for pre-K to $23,525 for the Upper School, and although financial aid can pare that considerably, it’s an investment that has historically triggered Minnesotans’ passive aggression.

“Blake parents would be asked by other parents, ‘What, Edina isn’t good enough?’ ” says McLane. “So we’ve had this humble-pie thing going on—we didn’t want to brag. We still have alumni who kind of whisper that they went to Blake.”

“I was ashamed to say I came from Blake,” an alum from the 1990s told me, “because people would say, ‘Ohhh, Blake.’ They would assume I was a rich snob when the reality is that my parents were divorced and it was a struggle to pay the tuition. At one point I told my mom that if we had to skip Christmas and presents in order to still go to Blake, I would be okay with that.”

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