New Member Spotlight: Fessy | Boarding | Boys of Color | Mbakwe Okafor

Mbakwe Okafor, Assistant Director of Admissions - The Fessenden School

Mbakwe Okafor, Assistant Director of Admissions – The Fessenden School

What brought you to Fessy?

As someone that worked in the charter school sector for nine years, I truly believe in education reform and 21st Century learning. When I worked at the high school level, I noticed that some boys were not striving as well as the girls. It was not that their current schools were not engaging them, but it was that they had made the decision that school was not going to be a strength. This decision is made in those formative middle school years. So, by the time they got to high school, most schools  were working from a deficit. Something happened to that energetic and enthusiastic kindergarten boy that made him become an uninterested ninth grader.  What drew me to Fessy was the opportunity to study how boys stay engaged in a middle school setting.  Fessenden has fostered an environment that keeps that energetic and enthusiastic kindergarten engaged through his middle school years.  As a result, Fessenden produces solid students and leaders that matriculate to the top high schools in the country.      

What does a boarding school education mean to you?

As someone who lives on campus with my wife and two sons, I have seen how quickly boys can transform when living in this kind of environment. They are given an opportunity to refine their life skills in a nurturing community. At boarding school, boys gradually become more independent and self-reliant as weeks go by, and that is an amazing thing to witness and be a part of.

We strive to make Fessenden the best home away from home for boys—because many of us make our home here, too. For boarders, the community we build in the classroom each day is extended through closer connections to one another (not to mention a wide range of weekend activities). And our commitment to honesty, compassion, and respect comes to life as boys build character while they live, study, and play.

One of the things I like best about the Fessenden boarding experience is that it provides students with a healthy balance of structure and independence during developmentally critical years.

What benefits do you feel a single gender education can offer boys of color?

Boys of color want the same thing all boys want, an opportunity to be themselves and to be a part of a community that embraces them.  Artists, athletes, readers, mathematicians, singers, scientists, actors, innovators: boys can be anything at Fessenden. The opportunities for them are endless. At co-ed schools, boys’ options are often narrowed by the societal pressures that define some activities as “girl things.” Boys often find themselves feeling less capable in school environments that value girls’ approaches to learning and to life. When boys come to Fessenden in the Middle or Upper Schools, they join other boys who have spent their elementary years in an environment that has shown them that boys can do anything–and that attitude is contagious. They meet classmates and make friends with boys who are involved in a variety of interests and pursuits: the captain of the football team who has the lead in the fall musical; the honors science student who plays drums in the jazz ensemble; or the ninth grade dorm proctor who reaches out to a homesick student in his dorm. At Fessenden, everything is a “boy thing.”

Our single-sex classrooms are another form of differentiated learning environments. Boys have distinct approaches to learning, and our teachers’ experience educating boys allows them to plan lessons, activities, and projects with these differences in mind. Active, hands-on, relevant lessons are often most engaging to boys; boys see the answer to “Why are we doing this?” as essential to their learning.

At Fessenden, we engage our students in conversations about what it means to be men in the 21st Century. We help them to see the many paths they can take to manhood and to success and happiness in their lives. We offer myriad opportunities for boys to take on responsibilities as table monitors, dorm proctors, student council members, captains of athletic teams, Big Brothers to Lower School students, and club officers, all of which give them a powerful vision of the many ways they can become good men. Our focus on character education provides our boys with the instruction, practice, and encouragement they need to become honest friends, respectful collaborators, and compassionate leaders.

Our students meet regularly in groups designed to increase their fluency and understanding of sensitive topics. Affinity groups, multicultural groups, and topical discussion groups afford our boys the chance to share a broad range of perspectives and opinions about myriad issues pertinent to their growth as students and citizens. Presentations by our international students bring the world to our door. Fessenden’s character education curriculum puts students in touch with matters of importance in the school as well as in the world at large. Guest speakers relate their experiences and information on a variety of subjects: from racial justice to gender roles, from disabilities to bullying. Classroom lessons explore these topics from a scholastic point of view. Parents are encouraged to contribute and connect with each other through adult affinity groups, such as AKIN, and by volunteering to be part of our Parents Association multicultural committee, FAME.

What are 3 myths you can dispel about boarding school education?

The first myth is that boarding schools are for boys that are not doing well in their current school. We not only have the top students in the country but the world. The curriculum has more depth and, if appropriate, faster pace for high performing students.

The second myth is that boarding schools are not forward thinking and the education is not as rigorous. Innovation Lab, access to top colleges, 21st Century education, Latin/Mandarin, differentiated learning–we have it all. Boys are asked to think bigger than the classroom, they are asked to solve the world’s problems while working in groups–inside and outside of the classroom. Boys have opportunities to travel the country and internationally to answer global & domestic questions.

The third myth is that boarding schools are not structured. Most boarding schools provide a great deal of structure. The structure of Fessenden’s academic schedule and weekends is really what helps the boys become more independent and self-reliant. The boys’ schedules on an academic day start with a 6:45 wake-up and run until lights out at 9:30. Time management and organization is a big staple of our boarding program. Boys learn quickly how to manage their time better and execute tasks efficiently. These skills take time to master and a nurturing community helps boys develop appropriately.

How should families of color assess if a boarding school is the right choice for them?

It always starts with the child. If your child is bright and enthusiastic about learning then you should consider an environment that will keep him engaged for longer periods of the day. Does your child have other interests outside the traditional five subjects, and does he want to foster those passions and engage with them on a higher level? Does your child like to explore new environments, people, and cultures?

Then assess your current school. Is your current school meeting all your child’s needs and your needs as a parent? Is your school preparing him for the 21th Century lifestyle and work space? Does your school have the space to meet your child’s passions outside the classroom? Our 41 acres and close proximity to Boston offer endless possibilities. Your child is not restricted by space or travel time because he has immediate access to everything. 

As a parent, you must have a willingness to think outside the box and assess what is best for your child right now. How does he tap into everything he wants to do while developing independence at this critically developmental point in his life?

What do you enjoy most about your role at Fessy?

I enjoy the versatility of my work. In admissions, I meet with a variety of families. I interview families from China, Korea, and Mexico. I also see local families from the surrounding towns and families from the Tri-State area. I am a residential faculty member, so I see students at dinner, in their dorm rooms, and during evening study hall. As a coach, I see the boys on the athletic fields and the courts. I coach varsity basketball. I oversee two affinity groups on campus: VOICE is a group for boys of African descent, and AKIN is a group for parents of boys of African descent. I also co-facilitate our SEED initiatives for faculty, engaging faculty in discussion and curriculum work around multiculturalism. I am everywhere, and I get to interact with boys and their families in a variety of roles, and I enjoy that the most.

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