A Bit of Local History
Rye Country Day Celebrates 150 Years
By Paul Hicks
Rye Country Day School had its beginnings in 1869 when a group of local parents established the Rye Female Seminary under the direction of Mrs. William Life, who had previously run a girls’ school in Pennsylvania. During its first year, 60 girls (25 boarders, and 35 day students) enrolled in the school, which was located on the present school property between Grandview Avenue and Boston Post Road.
The 1870 school catalog emphasized that, “The location, from its convenience to New York City by New Haven Railroad, is unsurpassed.” Today, more than 100 of the 900 day students commute by train from both directions but the great majority live in the local area.
On the retirement of Mrs. Life, the Seminary was purchased by two members of the faculty, who initiated significant changes in the academic program, including the introduction of college preparatory courses. In 1921, the Seminary merged with a nearby boys’ school, forming Rye Country Day.
The school became fully coeducational in 1964 when the program for boys was extended from ninth through twelfth grade. Today, the student body consists of 48% girls and 52% boys with 204 in the Lower School, 290 in the Middle School, and 406 in the Upper School.
Scott Nelson, who has been headmaster for twenty-six years, leads a strong faculty (87% have advanced degrees) who have made Rye Country Day one of the best private secondary schools in the country. In the past five years, the three top college matriculation choices have been Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard, which together enrolled seventy-eight of RCDS graduates.
From an endowment of $55 million (largely funded by parent and alumni donations), the school provided $5.6 million in financial aid to 16% of the 2017-18 student body when tuition costs ran as high as $43,200 in the Upper School. With a needs-based financial aid program and a commitment to diversity, the school has continued to attract large numbers of qualified applicants each year. About 30% of the enrollment self-identify as students of color, which, Scott Nelson noted in an interview, is up from 13% twenty-five years ago.
In 1958, the size of the campus was substantially reduced by construction of the I-95 corridor. In the past sixty years, however, the school has benefitted from substantial donations that have funded land acquisitions as well as new academic, athletic, theater, arts, and classroom buildings, creating an attractive and cohesive campus.
The most recent campus addition is the Cohen Center for the Creative Arts, which includes art studios, digital photography and videography classrooms as well as a black box theater. It also contains a “MakerSpace,” where students can work on complex problems while making physical and digital products.
Much of the land acquired in recent decades has been devoted to supporting the school’s commitment to a very inclusive athletic program. According to the school’s website: “Athletics are broad enough to prepare gifted athletes to compete at the college level, while at the same time ensuring that all students are exposed to the lifelong benefits of athletics and team participation.”
In December 2017, Governor Cuomo signed legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Otis, which authorizes the Thruway Authority to sell a nine-acre parcel of land along the Post Road to Rye Country Day for recreational purposes. The sale and transfer of this property are contingent upon establishment of a shared use agreement between the school and the City of Rye that is currently under discussion.
From its beginning 150 years ago, Rye Country Day has emphasized not only academic excellence through a liberal education but humanistic values and community service as well. Today, these same values are at the core of their mission and are reflected in the school motto: “Not for Self, but for Service.”
Through programs offered both on and off campus, students work toward developing a connection to the greater Westchester community and beyond while applying their creative and analytical problem-solving skills to genuine community needs.
When hurricane Sandy shut off power for days, its athletic center became the community’s emergency evacuation center and, more recently, when Nugent Field was flooded, some of the Rye High School teams were invited to play their games at Rye Country Day.
Mrs. William Life, Rye Female Seminary’s first director, starting in 1869
Illustration of the campus in an 1887 brochure
Drawing from life in a 1940s art class
The newest campus addition, the Cohen Center for the Creative Arts’s
Block party at Rye Country Day earlier this month