Built to Lead

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

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.”
 

 

Blaine Crawford folds himself like a pink ribbon and sits at a table with Alisha Litman-Zelle and Janhawi Kelkar, two self-possessed young women debating whether the stereotypes persist. “My friends in Wayzata assume that I’m the exception,” says Janhawi, who isn’t the WASP she’s supposed to be. Alisha, who serves in the school’s Justice League, zealously dedicated to “acknowledging systems of privilege and oppression” and “rooting out injustice,” says the stereotypes keep her on her toes: “You don’t want to come off as condescending or better than other people, and confirm what they’re already thinking.”

Crawford, the diplomat, shrugs off haters. “If you have self-confidence,” he says, “you don’t let that affect you.”

The preconceptions have been hard to shake, and for good reason. Prep schools were effectively islanded for generations, and some still are, affirming the values and status of privileged parents—a country club with books. Blake was no exception. “Even in sixth grade, I sensed there were some kids who were role-modeling their wealthy parents,” an alum from the early 2000s told me. “Among the popular set, it was understood that your mastery of manners and insiderism was your pathway to success.” These kids, when they got their driver’s license, would race their SUVs down I-394 from Blake to the western suburbs. “There was this invincibility complex,” recalled the alum.

The apex of entitlement was a legendary incident at a hockey game some years ago in which a crowd of Blake students reportedly took to taunting, “You’re all going to work for us someday!” Some people say this never happened, some say it happened more than once. No one finds it inconceivable.

It fell to the faculty, say alumni, to keep entitlement in check. “Even though Blake has been a vessel for power, it has had a pretty incorruptible teaching staff,” says one alum. “The teachers were ballasted by their love of the subject matter, more concerned with the question of whether you were mastering the field than who your parents were.”

But it was the world outside Blake that ultimately prompted a hard look inside. About 10 years ago, surveys of alumni started coming back with generally sterling feedback about the Blake experience and one apparent gap. “We were getting dinged on how prepared our graduates were to study and work in a diverse world,” says McClane. Students were arriving at college in the midst of people from all over the globe, perspectives from all over the map, and some were not prepared—the one thing you really expect from a preparatory school.
 

Nan Peterson, Blake’s director of service learning, paces in an office at the Upper School, draped in a white tee, swag from a project she helped organize. Every year, she leads a school trip to Kenya and has the sunburn to prove it. “The world is changing,” she tells me. “Stanford is a majority-minority university now. You can’t be a fortress on the hill anymore.”

For the past 15 years, she has tried to turn entitlement on its head, drawing students into service as informal as hiking provisions over to the homeless gathered near the Dunwoody underpass. “We’re going from me to we,” she says, “this idea that you’re not better than someone else because of all the marbles you have. Appreciate what you’ve got, sure, but don’t count on resting on your financial laurels.”

In the Lower School, the fashionable fourth-grader now hosts a birthday party where the guests haul canned goods off to a food shelf. Arithmetic means counting donated coats. Blake kids help support a school in India. And through a program called Learning Works, exceptional middle-schoolers from Minneapolis Public Schools are bused to Blake, where aspiring teachers in high school and college inculcate an intellectual fervor that hopefully propels these kids into college.

Peterson allows that some kids still tote Gucci bags in a cloud of entitlement. “Sometimes we have to knock kids over the head with this stuff,” she says. But that stuff is now as much a part of Blake, she insists, as its old red bricks.

In fact, it’s a selling point. Scott Flemming, Blake’s director of equity and community engagement, tells me, “The old way, of prep schools affirming your status and identity, is no longer preparatory.” He has fostered affinity groups for LGBT students, students of color—you name it—encouraging students to embrace their identities and to understand others. “The goal is inclusion,” he says, “because only then can you have real learning. I can’t have anyone checking any part of themselves at the door.”

Flemming hopes students will “lean into” unfamiliar situations, not “retreat back into privilege.” When concerned parents tell him something along the lines of, “I thought you were keeping my child safe,” he responds, “Safe, yes. Comfortable, no.” Some conservative families have balked at this approach. In 2001, a group including Blake alums founded their own school, now affiliated with the Catholic church, called Providence Academy, in Plymouth.

Blake’s new headmaster, Anne Stavney, who arrived last year from Seattle’s progressive Lakeside School, the alma mater of Bill Gates and Paul Allen, isn’t about to pull back on inclusion any more than universities are. “Alums have tremendous influence at any school,” she says, “and some will say, ‘That’s not the school I believe in.’ Blake has looked forward, and the challenge is to recognize that things have changed without freaking people out.”

Michelle Keeley, the chair of Blake’s board of trustees, is a former Ameriprise executive who moved from New York to Edina a decade ago and concluded that Edina schools weren’t diverse enough. So she and her husband sent their son and daughter to Blake. One afternoon, after a business meeting at the Minneapolis Athletic Club, she tells me, “Empathy, curiosity, a sense of justice—these were things we were looking for. I want my kids to be empowered to help others, empowered to use their voice, empowered to be disruptive, empowered to challenge the status quo.”

This, Keeley says, is Blake’s brand: not just turning out good students, but good people. Unique people. Leaders, if only of their own destiny. “So much of adolescence is like a current pulling you toward the mainstream,” she says. “To truly become yourself—that’s worth its weight in gold.” 
 

For more about Minnesota’s leaders, read “Power & The New Establishment.”

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