Andover’s Unique Cluster Arrangement Provides Students with Support System

Andover’s unique cluster system has been hailed as an effective way to make the PA experience more intimate, yet recently some students have objected that cluster divisions create unfair discrepancies in discipline, housing, and elections. In the spring of 1967, in an attempt to personalize a large school, the Phillips Academy faculty voted to experiment with a new policy – the cluster system. The Academy fashioned this system based on Harvard University’s “house system” and Yale’s “residential college” program. Though both systems establish a smaller community within a large environment and separate freshmen from the upperclassmen, they differ from PA’s cluster-isolated disciplinary process with a central Discipline Committee. Established to assess the value of the cluster system, West Quad South was the first and only cluster created in 1968. The students welcomed the cluster system and in 1970 PA divided the whole campus into clusters. In 1971 Advisory Committee member Andy Thurman ’72 said, “The main advantage of the cluster system is its increase in education value. In effect, under the cluster system students have more contact with faculty and more responsibility.” When the system began, both Juniors and Seniors enjoyed their own clusters while Lowers and Uppers shared housing. By 1972, however, both the Junior cluster and “Senior City” were phased out and housing became as it is today. The main objectives of the clusters were to breach the distance between the faculty, students, and the administration, as well as to split PA into more intimate communities. The cluster method attempts to eliminate this administration-student divide through weekly interaction between students and Cluster Deans at munches and daily contact between students and house counselors. Clusters provide house counselors with a support system consisting of the dean and other house counselors within the cluster. The division of the campus also greatly increases student leadership roles and encourages participation in intramural competition. One of the main achievements of the cluster system is the creation of many leadership roles across campus. These offices not only allow a greater number of students to act as leaders in their community, but some believe that the intimate communities created by the cluster system provide shyer students with the opportunity and support to run for office. Pine Knoll Cluster Dean Linda Griffith observed, “Without the in-cluster elections you start to create an unbalanced campus – all the Blue Keys would be from Flagstaff and West Quad South.” The cluster system, unique to PA, also attracts applicants to Andover. Dean of Admission Jane Fried said, “Harry Potter has popularized Andover’s cluster system.  Students ask us all the time if our clusters resemble the houses at Hogwarts.” The cluster divisions of the campus, however, also can create problems. The cluster system also has complicated housing and election processes, such as those that elect Blue Keys, DC representatives, and Cluster presidents. Changing clusters reduces the chance of a student to a hold a leadership position. The elections also take place before the housing lottery, so a student cannot apply for a cluster-based position if he or she plans on leaving a cluster. One of the main goals of the system is for students to develop relationships within the cluster. Since many students switch clusters throughout their Andover career, they may not be able to form bonds with members of the faculty. Many students argue that the decentralized DC system varies unfairly between clusters, yet the disciplinary process was converted from a central committee in 1970 specifically to accommodate the desires of the students. The Report of the Faculty Steering Committee of 1965-1966, The Guidance of Students, commented, “The remoteness of the administrative machinery from daily life of the [Andover] boy tends to create an undesirable separation between action and consequence.” Pine Knoll Cluster Dean Linda Griffith said, “Many times when people complain about disparities within the cluster system, particularly the DC system, it is merely a misperception or a lack of familiarity with the case. In a big school with a central committee, it may appear that things are fairer, but you lose the intimacy created by the clusters. I don’t think the perceptions of the student body are enough to force PA to leave such an effective system.” Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the only other boarding high schools with a student body as large as Andover’s, has found success using a different method of organization. Exeter endeavors to form smaller communities through dorms, as opposed to clusters. As a freshman, the students are assigned to particular dorms, where they will stay for the remainder of their careers at Exeter. Though students are permitted to switch dorms, only a few housing requests are received each year. At Exeter, proctors preside over each dorm, as at PA, yet they enjoy more authority than their Andover counterparts. Phillips Exeter has a centralized discipline board, and Exeter Dean of Students Ethan Shapiro said, “We have the same types of issues [as PA in respect to student perceptions of the disciplinary system]– in other words, we don’t say that if you break this rule or that rule you will get a second chance – we say that if break a major rule, you’ll appear in front of the discipline committee.” He continued, “It’s a very involved system, and the punishment is not automatic – every detail is considered, but when the punishment varies on similar cases, students can have a negative reaction.” Exeter student Miriam Rose Baker ’05 said, “Exeter’s really found a way of compartmentalizing our community so that everyone has someone that they can relate to within the system. I would prefer…having a smaller dorm as a community than a larger cluster.”