Elaine Wiswall Betts

Elaine Betts

Elaine Wiswall Betts

Elaine Betts was the eighth head of Dana Hall School. She valued a rigorous academic curriculum and single-sex education for girls. The secondary school years, she felt, should have the short-range objective of preparing students for college and the long-range goal of helping students find a direction for their lives.

Mrs. Betts attended single-sex schools from kindergarten through college. From kindergarten to twelfth grade she attended the Albany School for Girls and then went on to Smith College, graduating with a B.A. in English. She taught English at a girls’ school in Oakland, CA, the Anna Head School. While there she coordinated a relationship with the Royce School for Boys and eventually the two schools merged. Mrs. Betts rose from Dean of the Anna Head School to head of the combined upper school. With the support of her family, her husband, the Reverend Darby Bett, and her three children, Victoria, Catherine, and Darby Jr., she agreed to return to head her alma mater, the Albany School for Girls, even though it meant that she would be temporarily separated from her husband. Her family also encouraged her subsequent move to Dana. The Bettses are a close family who believe that “life is a gift to be used to the fullest both for self and for others” (Dana Hall Bulletin March 1984).

Mrs. Betts and Baron, the family dog who was part St. Bernard and part Labrador retriever, moved into Grove House. The friendly students and the vitality and involvement of the faculty immediately impressed Mrs. Betts. She made it clear that there would be no changes her first year but rather that she would observe and then assess her findings. By the second year she identified two priorities for Dana Hall: academics needed strengthening and the school’s identity as a boarding school needed to be reaffirmed. She found that few students stayed on campus on weekends and the day and boarding students stayed in their separate groups. In 1985 Blair Jenkins came to Dana as the Dean of Students. “Blair’s arrival was the single most important factor in transforming a school with a 50-50 ratio of day to boarding students into one residential community,” said Mrs. Betts (Dana Hall Bulletin Winter 1995).

In addition to strong academic studies, Mrs. Betts felt a broader education was important to help students prepare for a satisfying and productive life once they graduated from Dana. Qualified seniors could take college-level courses at local colleges. This offer was particularly attractive to girls who were interested in studying languages not offered at Dana and who could now take Chinese, Japanese, or Italian at Wellesley College. Talented juniors and seniors could take life-drawing courses at Boston University on Saturday mornings and, through the Harvard Career Discovery Program, study architecture, interior design, or city planning. Seniors could also participate in an internship program. They carried an academic program of 3-4 credits and had internships in varied areas such as ceramics, the education of blind children, scientific research, and politics. Dana’s proximity to the cultural and historical attractions of Boston and the natural resources of the mountains and the ocean made exciting beyond-the-classroom activities a possibility.

In 1989, an exchange program was initiated with a private French school, Notre Dame de Lisieux in Normandy. Students spent some time in Paris and then had a home stay in Lisieux. Another option was a study tour to Spain where students had the opportunity to live with a Spanish family for two weeks and in addition have two hours of conversation and culture at a Spanish school. In 1992, an exchange with Ruyton Girls’ School in Melbourne, Australia was begun. Every year Dana hosted two Ruyton girls in the fall and in the summer, two Dana students attended Ruyton and stayed with Australian host families. These programs offered unique opportunities for students to be immersed in another language, experience life in another country, and better understand the complexities of different cultures.

The Wannamaker Lecture Series, named in memory of Lyall Wannamaker Plumb 1955, started in 1987. This endowed fund was made possible by the generosity of members of the Class of 1955 and the Wannamaker family. A continuation of the Bardwell Series started by Helen Temple Cooke in 1929, this series today still brings distinguished poets, authors, artists, and leaders in science, medicine, business, and politics to Dana. Like Miss Cooke, Mrs. Betts felt that this lecture series was an excellent way to broaden the education of her students. The first year of the series brought author Doris Kearns Goodwin, poet Sonia Sanchez, writer David Huddle, poet Erica Funkhouser 1967, and poet Marjorie Agosin to Dana.

In 1993, Elaine Betts and Blair Jenkins embarked on a two-year stint of shared school leadership. Mrs. Betts remained Headmistress while Blair Jenkins was named Head of School. Shared leadership seemed innovative at the time but it was not new in Dana’s history. Julia and Sarah Eastman were jointly the first Heads of Dana Hall from 1881-1899. Such a model allows a team with one vision to divide the complex responsibilities for the operations of the school.

Mrs. Betts met the ongoing challenge of making a Dana education appropriate to the changing world. She felt that all schools must rethink the kinds of skills and knowledge that that will be important to its graduates. She supported the faculty through professional development funds and the Congdon Sabbatical Program so that they were able to continue to learn and bring new ideas into the classroom. Olive Long, Director of Admissions from 1988-2004, was committed to establishing a diverse and talented student body. The school’s dedication to diversity resulted in a large multicultural community. As the school’s community became a global microcosm, chaplain Judith Carpenter helped the Dana community better understand its growing diversity. Community service was an integral part of the school, with over 60% of the students participating. It was the core of Mrs. Betts’ belief that “a school must develop a student’s sense of service to her school, and a lifelong sense of responsibility towards the larger community and the world” (Dana Hall Bulletin March 1984).

Although through its history Dana has changed, these changes still reflect the beliefs and traditions of the past. Dana remained a school for young women committed to academic excellence. Mrs. Betts was dedicated to ensuring that her students were well prepared to be active participants in a complex and challenging world.

Bibliography

Elaine Betts, photograph. Dana Hall Archives, Wellesley, MA.
“Elaine W. Betts.” Dana Hall Bulletin 56.2 (Winter 1995): 2-3.
“Elaine Wiswall Betts to Be Eighth Headmistress.” Dana Hall Bulletin 45.3 (March 1984).
“Two Heads Are Better Than One.” Dana Hall Bulletin 54.2 (Fall 1993): 2-3.
Originally published as Person of the Week, May 29, 2006
 

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