In Portsmouth: Five decades of ‘joy, understanding and respect’

The Pennfield School celebrates its 50th anniversary

By Jim McGaw
Posted 9/16/21

PORTSMOUTH — Unlike many private schools, The Pennfield School started with nothing when it was first conceived 50 years ago, said Head of School Rob Kelley.

“Fifty years ago, it …

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In Portsmouth: Five decades of ‘joy, understanding and respect’

The Pennfield School celebrates its 50th anniversary


PORTSMOUTH — Unlike many private schools, The Pennfield School started with nothing when it was first conceived 50 years ago, said Head of School Rob Kelley.

“Fifty years ago, it wasn’t called Pennfield School. It was called The New School because it was brand new in September of 1971, and the founders didn’t know what to call it,” Mr. Kelley told students and faculty members who gathered on the lawn outside the school Monday morning to sing “Happy Birthday” to the learning institution.

Pennfield, which enrolls 156 students from age 3 to eighth grade and is known for its service learning that’s threaded into the curriculum, was “built on the foundation of … joy, understanding and respect. Those words are above the front desk,” Mr. Kelley said. Creativity, fierce determination and above all else, tireless loyalty, were needed to make it a reality five decades ago, he said.

The 1970s, he pointed out, were tumultuous times which brought about much-needed changes. “Pennfield was very much part of that era of change,” Mr. Kelley said.

The school was originally part of St. Michael’s Country Day School in Newport, but a split took place in 1971. According to Mr. Kelley, there was a “governance issue at St. Michael’s” and the Rev. John A. Cranston Jr. , the headmaster, was forced out. 

Anna Tillinghast, a parent and renowned architect — she designed a number of residences around Ocean Drive and the Cliff Walk in Newport, as well as the windmill at Hammersmith Farm — remained loyal to Father Cranston. Along with a group of friends and parents, she established The New School, an independent school in Newport, and Father Cranston was named the first headmaster until his retirement in 1983. (Ms. Tillinghast’s son, Guy, was in the first graduating class of 1972.)

“Anna Tillinghast reminded me time and again that the school succeeded because everybody pitched in. Everybody cared, everybody was loyal to the school and everybody was dedicated to educating children,” Mr. Kelley said.

The school moved several times over the years — it was once located near Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown and also occupied the former Coggeshall School building on East Main Road for several years. “The school has had many homes, but this is its final home,” said Kristin Emory, the school’s head of external affairs and director of admission and financial aid.

Throughout the journey, Ms. Tillinghast, who died in 2019, was a “force” who always kept in touch with the school, Mr. Kelley said. From time to time she’d even send him a big box of Florida oranges to share with faculty, because she wanted them to stay healthy.

“I started here in 2005, and it was probably 2007 or so, when she was in her mid-70s,” Mr. Kelley recalled. “She came on campus and saw that the white fence back there was getting a little dirty. She said, ‘Rob, I’m going to come by tomorrow with a bucket and I’m going to start cleaning the fence.’”

Mr. Kelley hired a crew for the job, but the offer spoke to Ms. Tillinghast’s forceful nature. “She worked hard and was determined, and whenever she asked anyone to do something, they always said yes,” he said. 

Although she spearheaded the creation of the school, she was modest about her involvement, refusing Mr. Kelley’s offer to name something after her. She gave all the credit to the faculty.

The spirit of the school, however, is very much modeled after words she made to the school and its original Board of Trustees on Sept. 9, 1971, Mr. Kelley said:

• “For the future, it would seem appropriate to suggest that we remember always to exercise the concern for justice, and the willingness to give of ourselves, which has carried us thus far in the fulfillment of the need in the community.” For students, Mr. Kelley paraphrased that as meaning, “Care for each other, stand up for what’s right, and volunteer.”

• “Weakness comes not from making mistakes, but in failure to make the effort.” Mr. Kelley told students that means they should both challenge and believe in themselves.

No ‘stuffy’ parochial school

Also speaking Monday was Ted Karousos, current chairman of Pennfield’s Board of Trustees and the father of four Pennfield graduates: George, Alex, Zachary and Sophia. 

The school has given his children “vast, vast opportunities” and has “renewed my understanding of the human condition,” he said.

He paid tribute to the original founders in 1971 — “a small group of parents who wanted something different” for their children.

“Gone would be the days of a stuffy private parochial schooling,” Mr. Karousos said. “We were going to be an egalitarian institution committed to excellence, filled with joy of lifelong learning, understanding of ourselves and others, and respect — respect for everyone and everything around us.

“It has restored my faith that no matter how bad things are and what trouble there is in the world, there will always be a better tomorrow, and that’s thanks to all of you.” 

‘Future is exciting’

In July, Salve Regina University announced it had purchased Pennfield School’s 19 acres of buildings and grounds for $3.4 million.

The long-term sale and leaseback agreement between Salve and Pennfield will eliminate Pennfield’s debt and allow the pre-K-8 school to invest its resources moving forward on academic programming, teacher support and building its endowment, officials said at the time.

On Monday, Mr. Kelley said the association with Salve will allow himself, faculty, and others in the Pennfield community to focus on what’s really important: the students. 

“The future is really exciting,” Mr. Kelley said. “We’re just growing this partnership with Salve and the opportunities are so incredibly vast. It’s not having this incredible pressure of debt service. I can focus on teaching. I got into teaching in 1986 not to be negotiating bonds. There will always be that beast, but the advancement part of my job is talking about this school. Asking someone who loves this school to give to this school is not a hard thing to do.

 “There is just a culture of kindness here.”

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.