YARMOUTH — Two hundred years ago Tuesday, on Feb. 4, 1814, Caleb Strong, the governor of Massachusetts, signed the charter that established North Yarmouth Academy.

The academy’s original mission might sound somewhat antiquated to our ears today: The founders hoped to foster an understanding and appreciation of “literature in the rising generation.” But reading on, you realize this focus was merely a means to an end.

According to the charter, access to this kind of education was considered to be “the basis upon which the safety and happiness of a free people ultimately depended.” And that emphasis – on freedom, security and well-being – surely resonates with parents, students and teachers of the current generation.

What’s still relevant now is that most schools – public or private, new or historic – still have to deal with the tension between continuity and innovation if they are to truly nurture these qualities within their communities.

Education has changed radically over the last two centuries, and our school has had to change along with it.

The academy was founded as a college preparatory school for both boys and girls. But through its history, it also served as a town academy for Yarmouth, first from 1877 to 1890 and again from 1931 to 1961. From 1965 to 1979, North Yarmouth Academy was an all-boys boarding school before becoming the co-educational day school that it remains.

If the founders were to stroll down Yarmouth’s Main Street today, certain elements would look familiar. Two buildings – Russell Hall, built in 1841 and Academy Hall, built in 1848 – are on the National Register of Historic Buildings.

But clearly, our students’ daily experiences have changed dramatically.

The obvious surface dissimilarities – cars instead of horses, smartphones versus quill pens – would certainly interest our founders.

More significantly, it’s the speed and the scope of what we do. We’re grounded in the great state of Maine, but like all schools in the area, we need to continually prepare students to live in a world that is integrated and global, far-reaching and changing at a breathtaking pace.

Teachers and administrators have to be more forward-thinking than ever to keep their schools’ curricula and experience relevant and address what students most need to thrive in this climate of constant innovation. Students have to absorb more information at a faster pace than ever before.

How schools rise to this challenge, encouraging in children the emotional, social and intellectual tools they’ll need to manage, largely determines their long-term success.

Questions such as “What do we teach?” and “Why and how do we teach it?” help frame the uncertainty ahead. For at its root, all of us in schools must be tapped in to the essential reasons for working with young people and remain keenly aware of both the weight and joy of this responsibility.

Our goals are not unique to North Yarmouth Academy. We are fortunate that a bicentennial offers us a chance to reflect on our history and origins, yet the anniversary inspires pressing questions as it offers the opportunity to celebrate achievements and examine our beginnings.

To identify challenges and determine our future direction, educators should draw on the most recent research from fields as disparate as neuroscience and anthropology, physiology and psychology. As we stay keenly aware of the latest findings in each of these areas, a healthy awareness of where we’ve come from allows us to draw on wisdom that’s proved fruitful.

As the great American educator John Dewey said 100 years ago: “The child’s own instinct and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.”

Our founders might well have agreed that those instincts would lead to safety, happiness and freedom and many in the field of education today would agree.

It’s my sincere hope that schools, no matter their mission or history, nurture the spark in each child and see in each one the foundation of what we’re to become as a country and a world.

Two hundred years serves as a significant landmark, but how we fulfill our responsibility from here will truly define our legacy.

— Special to the Press Herald