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Harbor Country Day School - Teaching Children to Love Being Life-Long Learners

Harbor Country Day School is an independent school, located in Saint James, NY, that was originally started in 1958.

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Photo Credit: HCDS

Quaintly nestled in the woods of Saint James, New York, is a unique learning institution that is teaching children of all ages how to develop a life-long love of learning.
Harbor Country Day School is an independent school, serving grades Pre-K2 through Grade 8, that was originally started in 1958 by 18 families who were looking for an alternative means of education for their children. The school began with only 32 students but – fast-forward to today – currently boasts 155 students with a staff of 40, and offers a broad slate of programs including standard educational fare, specialized courses such Mandarin and Spanish, and a wide array of extra-curricular activities such as art and music.
John Cissel has served in his esteemed role as Head of School for the past seven years, and says that Harbor Country Day School strives every day to live up to their motto, which is “Embracing the Extraordinary in Every Child.”
“What inspires me about the job that I have here is that we know what the needs of children are, how to challenge and support them, and how to identify their interests in order to tailor programs to their strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “We believe in the goodness of children and all that they are and, because we only have a student body of 155 kids, our class sizes are small which allows us to really spend time with them, get to know what their needs are and fulfill their dreams, so to speak.”

Harbor Country Day School is located in the woods of Saint James, New York. Photo Credit: HCDS
Situated on 11 acres, Harbor Country features huge fields for soccer and playgrounds in a wooded, suburban setting, providing a picturesque respite for students and staff from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Cissel, who also serves as a teacher and sports coach, has been involved in education since he graduated from college, and says that Harbor Country is like no other learning institution that he’s ever had the pleasure of working at before.
“Harbor Country believes in children in a way that I’ve never seen in a school before,” he said. “Harbor trusts them and works so hard to give them a voice to have them become confident, independent leaders and learners.”
Like all schools in New York State, Harbor Country faced steep challenges with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Closed down in March to help curb the spread of the virus, the school immediately pivoted to remote learning until they were finally allowed to re-open in September.

Situated on 11 acres, Harbor Country provides a picturesque respite for students from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Photo Credit: HCDS
However, parents who are concerned about Harbor Country’s preparedness in the face of the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can rest assured that the staff is adhering to all social distancing and cleaning/sanitizing protocols in order to maximize the safety of both students and staff, Cissel said.
“Everyone is joyful to be back under one roof, and we dread the day if we ever have to go back to online learning since we know that the best learning takes place when you’re face-to-face,” he said. “We are conducting COVID tests every week for all students and staff, and that forces people to be very careful because they don’t want to be the person who tests positive. Everyone is following all the protocols and are very concerned about their health, and the community is working together so we can stay open.”
“The real heroes of the day are the teachers,” Cissel continued. “We’ve taken things back to the 20th century, old schoolhouse model, and strangely enough, it’s working.”
Given its status as a tuition-based, independent school, attendance at Harbor Country comes with a price; however, tuition assistance is available and all efforts are made to help families with financial need. In fact, one of Harbor Country Day School’s greatest strengths is that it is an extraordinarily diverse and welcoming school in every sense of the word, Cissel said.
“We strive to have as diverse a community as we can,” he said. “Economically, ethnically, and racially, and it’s really one of the riches of the school.”

Head of School John Cissel. Photo Credit: HCDS
Ever on the cusp of cutting-edge educational excellence, Harbor Country is in the process – briefly delayed due to COVID – of expanding their STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) programs, as well as modernizing their facility to meet the demands of their continued growth.
At the end of the day, Harbor Country Day School is a special place where students and teachers form a special synergy; children are given all the tools they need to grow and succeed in today’s world, and according to Cissel, they have a more than proven track record in that regard.
“Students who leave here and apply to schools typically get into their first-or-second-choice school, and our college record is very strong. A lot of our kids are going on to Ivy League schools, some of the best schools in the nation,” he said. “There’s a relationship here between teachers, students, and parents here at Harbor Country Day School that is incredibly close-knit…they bleed Harbor green.”
To find out more about Harbor Country Day School, please visit their website at