Christchurch School

William Styron is a distinctive voice of the South and successor to William Faulkner. His journey as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author began at Christchurch School, along the banks of the Rappahannock River, a few miles above the Chesapeake Bay. He graduated from there in 1942.

In This Quiet Dust: And Other Writings, Styron recalled: “Christchurch may not have been in those days the most well-heeled place, but it had a warm and golden ambience, and life was sweet, and we ate like kings.”

“I love that recollection,” said Headmaster John E. “Jeb” Byers. “Life is sweet at Christchurch, and we do eat like kings. Our staff cooks primarily from scratch with fresh, locally sourced ingredients, some from our garden. The river is a wonderful source of food. Styron writes about soft-shell crab and duck-egg pancakes.

In the old days, students could shoot ducks and the chef would cook them for 25 cents apiece. Our chefs still prepare rockfish and speckled trout caught by our students from the river.”

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia opened Christchurch in 1921. Today it is coeducational and sits on 125 acres of riverfront in the Middle Peninsula region of Virginia. It is one hour east of Richmond and two-and-a- half hours south of Washington, D.C.

The river is more than a stunning backdrop to a campus. To 220 students from 13 states and 10 countries, the river and Bay are living classrooms where they learn about the geography, ecology, economy, history and culture of the region through hands-on exploration. In 2005, Byers introduced Great Journeys Begin at the River, a one-of-a- kind curriculum that established the school’s greatest natural asset as the centerpiece for the entire Christchurch experience.

“The river is our constant companion, touchstone and source of inspiration. It is a classroom, a sailing venue, a fishing spot and a

powerful symbol of unity and continuity,” said Byers.

The curriculum is the culmination of passionate work  that began more than a decade ago when Byers and the faculty  met to explore ways in which they could differentiate Christchurch from competing boarding schools with staggering endowments. What began as a marketing conversation quickly shifted to an educational dialogue among powerful and visionary minds.  The team determined students need an authentic education, one that pushes them—inside and outside the class- room—to dive deeply, discuss, think, write and understand how to apply what they learn in school to the real world.

“Education is not about content delivery and Google,” said Dr. Neal Keesee, the associate head of school. “We take a skills-based instead of a content-based approach to education.

The idea is to use resources to help students make the connections themselves so they learn relevance.”

The school’s natural resource serves as a powerful metaphor for self-discovery and learning.

“Jeb is a visionary who wanted to make use of our sense of place,” added Dr. Keesee. “Siddhartha comes to mind, with  the river being the path to enlightenment. Christchurch has the river, but that’s only part of it. We also have the people and the mission. We want to meet you where you are and help you get to where you’re going. The river is a part of this and one of our pillars.”

Episcopal faith and college preparation are also pillars of the school. Christchurch core values are curiosity, acceptance, integrity, kindness and self-confidence. Immersion trips—which are designed to reinforce core values—are off-campus study experiences that use the local environment to immerse students in a concept they have been exploring in class. They conduct

hands-on experiments, explore the region and interview residents to understand their history and the challenges their communities face.

Every year, each grade investigates a different part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed through a three-day immersion trip. Longer immersion trips focus on international destinations such as Africa and India.

“The idea behind immersion trips is to make you a better problem-solver,” explained Byers. “They’ll teach you how to find answers by asking the right questions. But most important, they’ll give you a better understanding of your place in the local and global community.”

Charlie Lange, a senior from Dallas, Texas, traveled to India and Senegal. As Byers noted, “Charlie wanted to know if ecotourism helps or hurts the communities in those countries. He also wondered if the economical benefits of ecotourism are more important than environmental impact.”

Students also visit the Chesapeake Bay’s Tangier Island to see the effects of climate change as rising seas threaten the

fishing community of 700 people. Students consider this question: Should the U.S. government and taxpayers spend $30 million to $40 million on breakwaters and other measures to save it? “How do Tangier Islanders deal with the government and protect natural resources? These are difficult questions and there might not be real answers,” said Dave Cola, director of place-based education. “This is an emotionally charged experience that builds sensitivity and global citizenry with links to all disciplines in the curriculum.”

Cola led students to the mouth of Urbanna Creek, where they studied ospreys tagged with transmitters. Months later, the class communicated with researchers in

South America who were tracking the birds’ migration patterns. “Students spoke with

researchers in conversational Spanish, which links to the curriculum,” said Cola.

Andy Angstrom, director of creativity, research and entrepreneurship, uses computer science, robotics, and mechatronics to teach students how to use technology ethically to find solutions. “Kieran Hanley, a student obsessed with fishing for rockfish [also called striped bass or stripers], designed a lure that appeals to the species,” explained Angstrom. “This is a great example of creativity and matching technology with a solution.”

Christchurch runs its own oyster farm, following oysters from spat (larvae) to market. As oysters grow, students sort and clean them and make certain they  have a high flow rate of water. They also help create, build and improve the systems and equipment used by the farm. This gives them a complete understanding of the local oyster economy and how each adult oyster can filter pollution from water at a rate of 50 gallons per day. The river serves as a living laboratory and Christchurch helps keep the water clean.

“We want students to think for themselves and think critically,” said Donny Pyles, dean of instruction. “Diversity is the real value point, and the school offers a genuine, internationally diverse experience.” The average class size at Christchurch is 10 students. The percentage of faculty holding master’s degrees or higher exceeds 81 percent. And 100 percent of graduates are accepted into college. “Christchurch is a special place and the river is a part of it. I believe our unique curriculum and place-based approach to education truly sets us apart,” Pyles added.

Other distinguished alumni include Lewis Puller ’63, Pulitzer Prize- winning author, Crombie J.D. Garrett ’35, Deputy Chief Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Bill Easterling ’72, Nobel Laureate and lead author of the United Nations climate change report.

Christchurch is ranked sixth in the nation for fleet and team sailboat racing. It has 42 sailboats on campus, making it the largest high school fleet in the country. Sophomore sailing phenomenon Boyd Bragg was profiled in the Fall 2016 issue of this magazine.

Great journeys begin at the river. Christchurch faculty and students continue to set their own courses in this life.

To learn more about the Christchurch program, see