By Robin Jovanovich
This year is Scott Nelson’s 25th as Headmaster of Rye Country Day School, and while his hair is a little grayer than when we met him for the first time in 1993, his determination and mettle are unchanged.
While recognizing and respecting the school’s storied history — Rye Country Day celebrates its 150th year in 2019 —, he has made sizable shifts and improvements.
“Rye Country Day has long put an emphasis on oral and writing proficiency, which continues,” he said. “But we understood the importance of adding computer and technology proficiency.”
The headmaster recalled a student, who, as a new freshman, asked if he could teach Coding to kids in the elementary school. “I give him credit for starting the revolution! That young man is now at Stanford.”
Mr. Nelson is also happy to report more recent good news: The Robotics team, which is only two years old, just won the County championship.”
During his tenure, Rye Country Day has expanded its footprint as well as its outreach. “I am of the mindset that we shouldn’t be ‘the school on the hill’, and we have opened our facilities to nonprofits,” he said.
A scholarship student himself back in the day, Mr. Nelson is proud to tell you that the school provides need-based scholarships to 16 percent of the student body, and that number rises to over 20 percent in the graduating class.
Growing up in southwest Yonkers, Scott Nelson was a smart, athletic kid but not a wealthy one. His route to a private school education was somewhat circuitous and absolutely life-changing.
He shared the story: “The County Police officer who lived across the street from my family knew the Hackley Athletic Director, Bob Sampson, from the annual basketball tournament at the County Center, where Bob was head of officials and the County Police were on duty. The AD apparently asked the police officers if they knew of any good student-athletes in their neighborhoods. So this neighbor handed my father a matchbook with the AD’s phone number on it.”
Scott Nelson took the admissions test and was offered a scholarship starting in grade 9. At Hackley, he played football and basketball and learned to play a “rudimentary” game of lacrosse. From there he went on to Brown University, where he co-captained an Ivy League Championship Football team in 1976.
He does acknowledge helping “resurrect” the Wildcat Football team soon after taking the helm at Rye Country Day. And among the sports added over the years are Boys’ and Girls’ Squash, Track & Field, and Wrestling.
The school’s 45,000 square-foot Athletic Center, which opened in 2000, is named for the headmaster that has served the school well on so many fronts.
In his second year on the job, he reorganized the Lower School. “I’m not sure the plan went over well with all of the faculty at the time, but I felt that we needed more than one person to oversee ten grades and that it was appropriate to have someone in charge of each level — pre-K, Lower School, and Middle School.”
He faced a bigger challenge, however, in 2008, when the financial crisis hit. But he kept calm, carried on, and urged the faculty and administrators to “continue to deliver the mission of the school” and families who’d had to leave would come back and more would follow. “We couldn’t control the stock market, but we could keep to what we are.”
And what they are is a school filled with first-rate faculty. “For me, right from the beginning, it’s our dedicated faculty, not our facilities, that distinguishes us.”
What generations of Rye Country Day students have been taught, in addition to academic excellence, is “Not for Self, but for Service.” Mr. Nelson has made sure that it’s more than the school motto.
“The school has always emphasized service and acts of kindness, but I’ve encouraged a more thoughtful approach to ensure that students have time to reflect on what they are doing, and how they are giving back.” He continued, “We received a matching grant to give students the opportunity to set up community engagement, with mentoring help from the faculty. Their programs with the Carver Center and the Boys & Girls Club of Mt. Vernon are two that stand out.”
In the last year, the big topic on campus, aside from how the school will celebrate Mr. Nelson’s silver anniversary, has been whether the school will purchase the Thruway property across Boston Post Road and convert it, primarily, to athletic fields. While many in the community are aware that the proposal hit a speed bump when Rye’s now ex-mayor tried to prevent it, what many may not know is that Mr. Nelson started writing State authorities about the parcel in 1994, with help from then mayor Ted Dunn. (He noted that when New York State, through eminent domain, purchased property in order to build the Thruway, it paid Rye Country Day $67,000 and took away all of the land in front of the school.)
Gov. Cuomo recently signed a bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Otis, allowing Rye Country Day to buy the land and share recreational space with the City of Rye.
“I’d have to say we are in the best place we’ve been on this property,” said the headmaster who doesn’t give up easily. “But the State still hasn’t told us the price!”
While Scott Nelson and his wife Sue, who has kept a low profile but has been instrumental in the school’s success, can imagine a life on Nantucket, where they spend time in the off-season, that time isn’t yet here. The headmaster still has his field of dreams and the school’s 150th anniversary on the horizon.
Rye Country Day School Headmaster Scott Nelson greeting students in the hallway