“We drove from New Jersey with two cars, five people and one dog,” he said.
Stefani was the Head at Hilltop Country Day in New Jersey, a position he held for the past seven years. Beginning in the summer of 2010, the Mountain School conducted a national search for a new head, and had found, hired and announced Stefani’s appointment by year’s end.
“The search process is a little like going on Match.com,” Stefani joked. “What you’re looking for is a school that speaks to you. You need to fall in love with the school and feel it is a mutual thing.”
Stefani first visited the Mountain School last fall, and immediately felt an attraction. Its administrative staff, child-centered community and experiential trips were all big draws.
“It was so exciting when I came and met four or five administrators who loved the school and were excited about what they’re doing,” Stefani said. “The school really spoke to me. I liked the use of first names, the way the adults listened to the kids – to their voices – and how important they were in the community.”
Stefani is also a supporter of experiential education, a critical component of the Mountain School’s philosophy and curriculum. Students in first grade through high school take fall and spring experiential trips that range from two-day regional jaunts to three-week international journeys.
“Every school I’ve been at, I’ve been involved in developing experiential education,” he said. “In New Jersey, you have to bang people over the head to get them to recognize the value. They’ll tell you that they don’t have time for this.”
“Experiential Ed is a logical outgrowth in this community,” he added. “How could you not offer the students that global exposure? There is such a need for opportunities that look beyond this box canyon.”
Hilltop Country Day, the school at which Stefani most recently worked, is a K-8 school that focuses on preparing students for their secondary school (i.e., high school) experience. Before Hilltop, Stefani worked at Rutgers Preparatory in Somerset, New Jersey, a pre-K through 12th grade program that, among other things, focused on preparing students for college.
“Working at Rutgers Prep and Hilltop [allows me to] bring to the table years of experience of prepping kids for their next challenges,” Stefani said.
Founded in 1998, The Mountain School is very young in the world of private schools. According to Stefani, it is coming out of its founding stage and into adolescence, a time in which he feels his leadership experience in more traditional preparatory schools will play an important role.
“When you get past what is creative and interesting in the classroom, you still have the infrastructure of the school,” Stefani said. “There are systems that need to be in place; formalizing those and establishing them so that they are bigger than the people in them is important.”
From early on in his search for a new school, Stefani said, he understood the Mountain School and was excited by the possibilities.
“It’s still a malleable institution,” he said. “There’s something refreshing about its youth. Its future is still unimagined.”
But he also admits he was initially confused – and intrigued – by a question that continually came up in the early stages of the interview process: “Can you live in Telluride?”
“When I came out here [to visit] I understood why that question was asked early on,” he said. “It’s a very loaded question, ‘Can you live here?’ From someone not from here, it’s hard to understand what that means. No one asked me that in Sparta, New Jersey or Delaware.”
After he was chosen in his Match.com version of a head-of-school search, Stefani and his family answered “yes” to that critical question.
His two daughters, Anya and Lily, will be attending the Mountain School as seventh and ninth graders, respectively. His son, Philip, will return to Concord Academy for his junior year, a college preparatory boarding school he has attended since he was a freshman. And now that Stefani’s found his professional match and has committed to Telluride, he’s not just looking for a fling, but a long-term relationship.