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Kingsbury celebrates its 60th 'first day of school'

September 05, 2012 - For most schools around Michigan, Sept. 4 was simply the start of another school year. But for Kingsbury Country Day School in Addison Township, the date was actually a milestone.

It marked the beginning of the institution's 60th year of educational excellence and independence from the public system.

"It's kind of a unique place to work," said Tom Mecsey, who's served as head of school since June 2008. "When I first started here, somebody advised me that the social life here at Kingsbury was very much what it used to be like when the church was the center of your social life. I think that's what has sustained us through the good years and the tough years."

Throughout its 60th year, Kingsbury will be hosting events to reconnect with its alumni base. "We'll be bringing them back in for faculty-alumni soccer games (and) basketball games," Mecsey said. "They'll be becoming a bigger and bigger part of our annual country fair. Our alums will be brought back to help make this a special year."

Kingsbury also plans to reach out to those outside of its school family.

"We want to reconnect with the community during the next few years. That's part of our growth strategy," Mecsey said. "We want to make ourselves available to our neighbors, to the greater Oxford community. We want to host events up here – to make our property, our grounds and our building available to everybody."

Located on a 125-acre campus at 5000 Hosner Rd., Kingsbury was founded in 1952 by Carlton Higbie, a successful financier and industrialist, and his wife Annette.

The Higbies purchased an abandoned schoolhouse from the Acheson family for $350 and leased the land upon which it sat from Addison Township for $2 per year for 25 years.

The land was originally deeded to the township in 1861 by Alonzo and Martha Kingsbury for $25 with the restriction that it be used for a school. A log schoolhouse was built and named for the Kingsburys, but it burned to the ground shortly after opening.

A new frame-structure schoolhouse was built in 1868 and is still in use today. The original Kingsbury School closed in 1932 when enrollment fell to just two students. It remained vacant and fell into a state of disrepair until the Higbies breathed new life into it as an independent school.

Wishing their school to be rooted in time-honored teaching methods and traditional values, the Higbies started their new school as a branch of the Isabelle Buckley Schools.

Founded in 1933 in Los Angeles, California, the goal of Isabelle Buckley Schools was to help each child obtain "self-expression through self-discipline." In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, the schools taught loyalty to God, dependability, leadership, courtesy, good manners, tolerance and respect. The schools' founder, Isabelle Buckley, was a tireless crusader against the modern, progressive ways espoused by education philosopher Dr. John Dewey and adopted by public schools all over the nation.

Although the Higbies certainly and appreciated the value of Buckley's system, they weren't crusaders like she was. They simply wished to open a school for their children and other families in the area.

To the Higbies, Kingsbury was an independent school right from the start, evidenced by the fact they bore all the financial responsibility to support it.

Kingsbury welcomed its first 13 students in September 1953. By November, enrollment was up to 18. Back then, the school only had three staff members – a director, an elementary grades teacher and a teacher in charge of the nursery school and kindergarten.

Today, Kingsbury has approximately 75-80 students and a staff of 25 including 20 teachers. "I think we've stayed true to what the Higbies wanted," Mecsey said. "They wanted a small, safe school that focused on a challenging curriculum and character education. We've stayed true to that over the years."

Kingsbury has the capacity to educate 180 students, but has decided to make 150 its goal over the next three years in order to keep the average class size around 15 pupils per grade.

The learning environment consists of more than 30,000 square feet of buildings, ranging from historic to modern – a far cry from the simply country schoolhouse that started it all.

Kingsbury's crowning achievement happened in December 2009, when the institution became an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) World School. If offers IB's Primary Years Programme, which is for students ages 3-12.

"We offer a world-class, 21st century education," Mecsey said. "We've got small and big wrapped up into one program here. We used to be called a country school, but we're not a country school, we're a school in the country with a 21st century edge."

Over the years, Kingsbury has included many educational and athletic activities that weren't found in other schools.

They included archery in gym class; tapping trees for maple syrup; taking school-wide ski trips; studying environmental science (since 1972) with nature as the classroom; and "beagling," a sport that involves having a pack of beagles chase – but not kill or hurt – a rabbit, while eager students follow on foot.

A November 1964 article in The Lapeer County Press described one of these hunts – "A lot of pint-sized outdoorsmen chasing a pack of beagles chasing a rabbit. And everybody has fun – including the rabbit. They don't really mean to catch him – they just want to see if they could. And he knows it."

Beagling was a regular part of Kingsbury life until 1965.

Since its founding, Kingsbury has become so much more than just a school. It's become its own little community, its own close-knit family.

"When I moved over from Cranbrook, I chose Kingsbury because it was a school that had a very strong community base," Mecsey said. "I think that's probably been one of our greatest strengths over the last 60 years. Every parent knows every parent. Every parent knows every child. We take care of each other's kids. I think that's what has sustained Kingsbury over the many years."

Dean Smith, a 1985 Kingsbury graduate, said in best in the 2006 book "Kingsbury School: The First Fifty Years," written by Ben-Carr Blake.

"The words 'Kingsbury' and 'community' are irrevocably connected for me," he said. "The environment at Kingsbury fosters teamwork and mutual support. I believe that the core of Kingsbury's philosophy was and is to simultaneously challenge and care for students. It's a lesson I have always carried with me."

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CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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