Advancing Program Initiatives

Future of Learning

Thacher students are more than just bright; they’re deeply curious, collaborative, resilient, outside-of-the-box thinkers and scholars who are eager to use their skills for the greater good. 
As we work, year after year, to challenge and inspire these future leaders, we’re also engaged in the work of assessing and adapting our programs to meet the needs of a changing world. While our strong academic and extracurricular programs, along with the dedicated faculty members who lead them, have successfully prepared generations of Thacher graduates to do meaningful work beyond our campus gates, we know that there’s always room for thoughtful growth and improvement.

The faculty, administration, and trustees have come together to identify several critical initiatives that will take us to new heights as we continue Sherman Day Thacher’s mission of “training young men [and women] in the art of living for their own greatest good and the good of their fellow citizens.” They include:  

  • Leadership—A comprehensive new program that more fully and deliberately integrates the lessons of resilience, positive risk-taking, and leadership that have always been part of the School into our core curriculum.
  • Music—An amplified program with additional staff and increased access to private lessons for students regardless of ability to pay.
  • Astronomy—An expanded program with augmented facilities, equipment, and technology.

Each initiative brings with it the opportunity for students to expand their ways of thinking about the world, learn and experiment in real world or hands-on situations, and challenge themselves across disciplines. 

Advancing Program Initiatives

Greatest Good Leadership

A Thacher education has always sought to foster traits like resilience and fortitude; offer opportunities for challenge, positive risk taking, failure, and achievement; and cultivate self-awareness and emotional intelligence to produce high-achieving, and personally fulfilled, graduates.
The research of today’s developmental scientists validates this approach; their findings indicate that fostering these traits leads to healthier, more successful students. And though Thacher has been teaching “grit” since before it became an educational buzzword, we haven’t been as deliberate as we’d like in categorizing and assessing these kinds of habits of character and learning. The research is clear: If we want our students to learn it, we must focus on it, integrate it, assess it, and deliver consequences around it. The launch of our Greatest Good Leadership Program—a comprehensive leadership initiative that will touch every aspect of the School—will make deliberate what we’ve always known intuitively.

The program won’t be confined to a single course or semester, but be fully integrated into our existing programs in the classroom, the dorm, on the playing fields, the backpacking trail, and the gymkhana field. It will be a four-year, applied learning leadership program that provides a persistent, purposeful, and pervasive approach to developing critical qualities of leadership in our students.

Beyond integration with existing programs, opportunities like the Muir Wise Summer Leadership Program will extend our learning and training opportunities in unique ways. Muir Wise, in particular, offers leadership training to our students during a three-week intensive outdoor education experience at Golden Trout Wilderness School and in the Southern Sierras. The program will also bring students from underserved schools in California, introducing Thacher’s leadership program to young men and women who wouldn’t otherwise have access.

Since much of the Greatest Good Leadership Program overlays existing program offerings, it won’t require major investments to get it up and running. But there are still some important incremental investments we’ll need to make in order to create a high-quality, consistent program with real impact. Focused time by one or more faculty members with a deep passion for and extensive personal experience enabling experiential leadership learning will be essential. We envision that half of a full-time faculty member’s time will be needed to build, manage, champion, and launch the program, which will including coaching faculty and students and sourcing outside speakers and experts.
This project is fully funded—thank you to our supporters!

Program Highlights

List of 5 items.

  • Codify Thacher’s basic principles and values around leadership.

  • Comprehensively infuse those principles into the entire program at Thacher, ensuring that reflection and assessment are core attributes of the program.

  • Expand the opportunities available for our students to learn and grow in foreign cultures with a particular focus on the relationships we have built in Asia.

  • Expand our visiting scholar and outside speaker programs through the Marvin Shagam Fund.

  • Build the capacity to offer leadership opportunities to adolescents and teachers beyond the Thacher student body.

Sharing Our Learnings

As we develop a new experiential leadership learning program, it’s important to us to share our knowledge and expertise with other educators and community leaders seeking to engage youth in values-based leadership development. We envision offering a combination of summer seminars and online, on-demand instruction to individuals looking to introduce 14-18-year-olds to the excitement and satisfaction of exploring, discovering, and learning to leverage their unique leadership potential.

Advancing Program Initiatives


Our music program is an essential opportunity for our students to hone creativity and engage and activate new ways of thinking and imagining. It’s also in higher demand than ever before.
The Milligan Center for the Performing Arts was completed in 2005, contributing to the rising student interest in the music program. A beautiful stage, an excellent sound system, and high-quality lighting and other backstage accommodations offer an enhanced environment for music to be played and heard, theater to be performed and enjoyed, and our entire community to congregate. This, along with some important gifts to fund music initiatives, has resulted in a remarkable resurgence of interest and participation in our music programs. Since 2008, Chamber Singers participation has more than doubled, String Ensemble has tripled, and Jazz Ensemble has grown a stunning seven-fold. On top of that, a full 20 percent of our students now take music lessons (1,600 lessons a year) and we’ve added a new class in electronic music.

Historically, we’ve had just one music teacher and a series of adjunct instructors. To meet the surging demand, we plan to add a second full-time teacher to our faculty who will provide additional instruction in jazz, string ensemble, and music theory. We’ve also recently begun to offer students on financial aid increased access to private music lessons. We plan to establish an endowment to fund these private voice and instrument lessons for any student regardless of his or her financial circumstances. Both of these initiatives will significantly expand our important music and arts offerings.

Program Highlights

List of 2 items.

  • Add a second full-time teacher to our music faculty.

  • Expand and endow the capacity to offer music lessons to students on financial aid.

Advancing Program Initiatives


A burgeoning astronomy program at Thacher’s formerly dormant observatory is offering students the remarkable opportunity to engage in hands-on scientific research and learning.
For over 100 years, astronomy has been part of the academic culture at Thacher. The dark skies of the Ojai Valley and its proximity to Los Angeles and Pasadena have attracted many big name astronomers to campus over the last century, including George Hale, who directed the Mt. Wilson Observatory (home to the largest telescope in the world at the time) and who spoke at the school twice in 1915 while his son was a student here; Edwin Hubble, who first identified galaxies outside our own and who delivered the commencement address here in 1942; and UCLA professor George Abell, who worked with then Thacher head of school Newton Chase to establish the Thacher Observatory on campus in 1965 as part of the Summer Science Program (SSP).
The result of a collaboration between Thacher, Caltech, UCLA, Stanford, and the Claremont Colleges, the SSP, arguably the nation’s most successful high school science program, utilized the Observatory to train high school students in observational astronomy for several decades. The Observatory was also used to train undergraduate and graduate students and to test prototype instruments, including some that were ultimately installed on the Hubble Space Telescope. But in 1999, Thacher discontinued its affiliation with the SSP and the Observatory fell out of use.

Reclaiming the Observatory

Between 2006 and 2012, Dr. Chris Vyhnal, chair of the Thacher Science Department, began efforts to reclaim the observatory for astronomy. After several years of working together informally, Vyhnal’s conversations with Dr. Jon Swift, research scientist and project manager for the MINERVA small telescope project at Caltech, evolved into a full-time faculty position for Dr. Swift at Thacher teaching math and physics and directing the observatory. He’s brought to Thacher a wealth of scientific and technical expertise, inspiration, and vision, along with a NASA research grant to continue his study of exoplanets and eclipsing binary star systems.
In 2015 and 2016, Thacher students accompanied Dr. Swift to several astronomy conferences, including the Hot Wiring the Transient Universe Conference in Santa Barbara, California; the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Kissimmee, Florida; and the 229th Meeting of the AAS in Grapevine, Texas, where they presented on the preliminary work being done at the observatory. They were met with enthusiastic encouragement from the astronomy research community.

NASA Partnership

In 2018, NASA’s space-based observatory called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)  launched and is currently surveying the sky for every nearby eclipsing binary and transiting exoplanet, including those accessible to the Thacher Observatory. Thanks to a major upgrade to the facility in the fall of 2016, including a new PlaneWave CDK-700 telescope, Andor iKon L-series CCD camera, and fully robotic dome, Dr. Swift has been accepted into the TESS Follow-up Observing Program. Thacher astronomy students will be conducting follow-up observations in collaboration with the TESS team. Dr. Swift is excited to include this partnership in Thacher’s astronomy curriculum, “The ability to tie together our curriculum with important scientific work at the frontier of astrophysics is priceless, and the student experience is powerful, authentic, and somewhat of a paradigm shift.”
This project is fully funded—thank you to our supporters!

Program Highlights

List of 5 items.

  • Use astronomy program as a way to attract prospective STEAM students (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics).

  • Create a vibrant research program in astronomy that serves students at many different levels.

  • Purchase a new telescope, dome, and auxiliary equipment for sustained astronomical research.

  • Purchase additional, minor equipment that will enable recreational astronomy from our campus.

  • Have a working observatory by August 2017 to fully participate in the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

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Back-to-School Playbook for the 2020-2021 School Year
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