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Academy positions self for global education

Date: 10/12/2010

Oct. 11, 2010

By Chris Maza

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM -- If you've been to the center of town, maybe you've noticed some changes around Wilbraham and Monson Academy lately.

For the better part of the last decade, headmaster Rodney LaBrecque has seen the school make advances in both its physical appearance and its curriculum in order to create the best possible educational experience for its students.

"I think the biggest change in the nature of the school is that we made a concerted effort to be a more academic school," LaBrecque, who was names head of the school in 2002, said. "We want to create college acceptance to the most prestigious colleges in the world. Our facilities had to match our ability to educate."

LaBrecque said that the additions to the academy will help the school get closer to the goal of being an elite institution.

"I don't mind the word elite. There's a difference between being elite and exclusive," LaBrecque said. "Exclusive means you're willing to shut people out. We don't want to do that."

Among the largest changes to the Wilbraham and Monson campus is one you can't see from the road. In 2003, the school added the Center for Entrepreneurial & Global Studies, which was strengthened in 2009 with the addition of the Mark R. Shenkman Trading Center in the Mattern Science Building.

The center is complete with state-of-the-art computers and software that gives students a hands-on approach to learning about global markets and curriculum has been added to take full advantage of the resource. The school also was awarded the E.E. Ford Foundation grant for professional development in global economics in 2010.

"It's a replica of the Wall Street stock trading floor," LaBrecque said. "Teaching students about the economics of this country and of the global market have become a big part of the school."

It also doubles as a workspace for globo-environmental studies, where students can use similar computer programs to study ecology and other sciences on a global level.

"Doing business now is a global enterprise these days," LaBrecque said. "If our students can learn global expectations, they can be more successful."

The athletic buildings and fields were another major project, with the final piece of that endeavor, the renovation of the tennis courts on Faculty Street, completed earlier this year.

"One of our biggest glaring weaknesses were out athletic facilities," LaBrecque said. "We were losing to peer schools a lot of applications from student athletes."

In 2007, the school renovated the gymnasium and natatorium and dedicated a new athletic center. The school had torn down he old field house, which had fallen into disrepair and replaced it with a state-of-the-art facility, including the Jane McNamara Kelly Center for Strength and Endurance, a training and fitness room named for Kelly, an educator and coach at the school who passed away from cancer in 2005.

The following year, the school raised $1 million and refurbished the track as well as the soccer fields, baseball diamonds and football field.

"That has allowed us to attract high-quality student athletes, which has been a tremendous benefit to us as a school," LaBrecque said.

With a student population of approximately 380 students, including 180 boarding students last year, the school also felt it necessary to improve the social resources on campus, this year finishing renovations to its campus center. That campus center, which is used by boarding and day students alike, helps the school create a greater sense of community, according to LaBrecque, because of the nature of the school.

"The students need a place to get together, relax, have a snack and socialize outside of the classroom," LaBrecque said of the center, which is complete with a snack bar, televisions, pool tables and a conference room. "It serves multiple purposes for us and has been a big attractor to the school."

LaBrecque also said that adding a social component to the campus, which is home to students of several countries in addition to different regions within the United States, actually helps in the educational process in regards to the school's focus on the global picture.

"I think it gives everyone an idea of what the new work world will look like and it will be very diverse," LaBrecque said. "By interacting with people from different backgrounds and learning different cultural norms, students are being put in a position to be more successful in a global workforce."

Adding to that sense of community is the fact that many of the faculty members live on campus with their families. As part of their compensation, the faculty members can be given housing. To accommodate this, the school recently added two new houses on Main Street and bought a third house next to Rich Hall on Main Street.

The latest addition for which ground was broken is a greenhouse, which will be located in the school's upper campus behind the Binney art building. With the support of a donor, the greenhouse is being built without a clear use within the curriculum at this point, but LaBrecque is not concerned about its usage.

"We're taking an 'if you build it, they will come' mentality," LaBrecque said. "As the curriculum grows, with the creative facility we have, I know that it will be a welcome addition. It's a great hands-on recreational tool as well as an academic one."

The school, which does not receive any government money, was able to grow and expand both its curriculum and its physical appearance through fundraising and donations. While it does not pay taxes to Wilbraham, LaBrecque believes the academy, which currently has approximately 50 students from Wilbraham and Hampden, has been and continues to be a benefit for the town.

"I think that people look at the academy and say, 'Well they must be wealthy. Why don't we get some revenue from them?' The truth of the matter is we run with a pretty tight budget," LaBrecque said. "But we do offer use of our facilities and don't charge non-profits to use them, we invite the public when we bring in guest speakers and hold other events that are open to the public."

"I also think that another non-financial piece that we offer is that having a school like the academy adds prestige to Wilbraham. It adds a certain cache. Not every town has a school like this and it helps bring some national recognition. I think we make a good presence within the town," he added.

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