In the mid-1820s, the Connecticut Baptists had announced their intention to charter a private school, with whichever town could raise $10,000 receiving the charter. The residents of Suffield, eager to have a school in their town, were successful in raising enough money to win the charter. The school's first building, later known as the Old South Building, was erected and the school opened under the title of Connecticut Baptist Literary Institute in 1829.
The early mission of the school was to educate young men for the ministry. Despite its founding links to the Baptist Church, the institute quickly moved towards a non-denominational model and in 1833 was renamed Connecticut Literary Institute, locally known as CLI. The institute was the only high school in town and local government funding helped to pay for each student's tuition.
From its founding, Suffield has shown a commitment to diversity; international students were welcomed in the 1830s, girls gained admittance in 1843, and African American boys and girls joined the community in the late 19th century. The school was renamed the Suffield School in 1916 and was restructured as a "Military School for Boys" two years later, featuring military-style regimentation, field maneuvers and riflery.
In 1937 the school was renamed Suffield Academy.
The first building of the Institute was the Old South Building. It stood on the property which is now the grounds of the S. Kent Legare Library. In 1894, the town of Suffield, with its long history of libraries, had begun the process of erecting a new public library. This drew the attention of Sydney A. Kent, a Connecticut Literary Institute graduate and Chicago businessman. Mr. Kent offered the town $35,000 to build the new library, under the provision that he could dedicate it in the name of his parents. With Kent's assistance, the town purchased the property from the Institute and, in 1897, began the construction of the new library with the demolition of Old South. Its architect was Chicago-based Daniel Burnham. On November 1, 1899, the new building was dedicated as the Kent Memorial Library.
In 1974, the town of Suffield moved the Kent Memorial Library to its present location at 50 Main St. and the academy repurchased the property. After a sizable addition was made to the back of the library, it was renamed the S. Kent Legare Library in 1976. The other buildings created during the years of the Institute were Memorial Hall (1854), Fuller Hall (1886) and the North Hall (late 19th century), which sat behind Fuller and Memorial, and was demolished in the 1930s.
During Appleton H. Seaverns' tenure as headmaster, the academy saw a visible change in its campus. Brewster Hall, the infirmary, Holcomb Hall and Perry Gymnasium were all added in the 1950s. Fuller and Memorial underwent much-needed renovations and modernization, the most dramatic being that of Fuller; details such as its 4th floor, front veranda, dining hall and ornate Victorian embellishments were replaced with simpler windows, a third floor, a cupola, offices for administration and other architectural shifts characteristic of post-war modernism.
Extra dormitories were also added on a plot of land opposite the school, which included the then-dedicated Kulle House, Proctor House, William Fuller House and Bissell House. These dormitories operated until the advent in 1999 of the academy's new dormitory quadrangle, located behind Spencer Hall. They now serve as faculty residences and daycare facilities. Spencer Hall, a dormitory housing more than fifty students, was opened in 1964.
The academy has also made a number of residential acquisitions along North Main St., currently using them for both students and faculty. Barnes House, Academy House, Nathena Fuller House and Montgomery Street House all serve as dormitories.
The Performing Arts Center opened in 1988, and the parking lots behind Memorial Hall and Holcomb Hall disappeared. The infirmary, having been behind Brewster Hall since its inception, was moved to a new building near the Performing Arts Center in 1997 and the old building became the home to the school's art department. General landscaping took place, as well as the installation of the campus-wide fibre optic computer network.
A campus master plan has been executed under the leadership of the current headmaster, fully funded by a capital campaign which generated gifts for Tisch Field House, Rockwell Hall (a new dormitory), Guttag Music Center, a new health center and a synthetic turf athletic field.
In the early 1950s, the school was in a period of decline. Its endowment was low compared to similar schools; the physical plant was in need of revitalization; enrollment was suffering due to the opening of the town's first public high school in 1939.
In 1952, the school hired Appleton H. Seaverns as its new headmaster. A dynamic young educator from West Hartford, Connecticut, Seaverns led a period of renewal for the school. Under his leadership, the physical plant improved and the endowment grew significantly. Many of the buildings in use today were built during his tenure.
Headmasters since Seaverns' tenure ended have included Paul Sanderson, Ken Lindfors and David Holmes. In 1974, the school returned to its co-educational roots.
Dr. David R. Holmes was appointed in 1991 as the first alumnus to be made headmaster. During his tenure, the school began the Laptop Initiative, the Leadership Program and the Outdoor Leadership Program. Headmaster Charlie Cahn has been a member of Suffield's faculty since 1992. He served as an English teacher and lacrosse coach, then as Director of Admissions, Dean of Faculty and Associate Headmaster. He was named Headmaster-elect in 2002 and became Suffield's 25th headmaster in 2004. A strategic plan generated a commitment to an enrollment of 400 students, small classes, a low student-teacher ratio and a beautiful campus.
In 1992, Suffield Academy was the first high school in the United States to require students to own a laptop computer. Suffield Academy uses all Macintosh computers. The school has a computer lab with the latest equipment, a computer repair center and several computer-oriented classes. Interested students can be trained in basic Macintosh repair.
The academy's network is extensive; all academic buildings are equipped with wireless and ethernet computer access, printers are spread over campus and can be accessed wirelessly, and each student is granted an account on the server. Students' activities are not actively monitored and no content is filtered. Suffield believes that it is a student's responsibility to use the network wisely.
Suffield Academy follows a liberal arts academic program. Each student is given an academic advisor and students may utilize academic support services as needed, including a student-run and faculty-advised writing center. Each student is placed with a college counselor to aid in the college application process.
To earn a Suffield diploma, students must complete 4 credits in English, 4 in Mathematics, 2 in Foreign Languages (including study through Level II), 3 in science, 3 in History (including U.S. History) and 1 in the Arts.
Each student must also complete 2 Technology Portfolios – 1 in grades 9 and 10 (if enrolled) and 1 in grades 11 and 12. Each student must take a minimum of 4 classes per semester. Each senior year course must be completed successfully and each senior must pass each spring term-length course.
The Leadership Program involves each student in courses focusing on seven core elements – personal mastery, moral foundation, goal setting, communication skills, problem solving, self-awareness and inspiring/motivating others). The aim of the program is to help students develop the skills and habits that lend themselves to making a significant and positive impact on society.
Suffield Outdoor Leadership Opportunities (SOLO) is the outdoor portion of the leadership program. SOLO gives students opportunities to practise leadership skills in an outdoor setting. By experiencing activities (rope courses, a climbing wall, camping trips and canoeing), students are able to use their leadership skills in the real world. SOLO is offered as an alternative to interscholastic athletic competition during all three seasons (fall, winter and spring). The Courtney Robinson Outdoor Leadership Center, a renovated barn situated on 40 acres (16 ha) of farmland to the west of campus, serves as the base for SOLO. The barn contains a state-of-the-art climbing wall, storage space for canoes and other equipment, and classroom and office space. In 2007, a high-ropes course was built outside the barn and has become an integral part of the SOLO program.
Suffield competes regularly in a number of interscholastic sports, with a total of 19 teams. There are Varsity, JV, Thirds and Fourths levels throughout various sports. The school's main rival is the Williston Northampton School. Teams also compete against schools including Deerfield Academy, Hotchkiss School, Choate Rosemary Hall, Berkshire School, Kent School, Wilbraham and Monson Academy, and Cushing Academy.The water polo team appears at the New England Prep Tournament each year, winning in 2009.
The wrestling team has produced 4 Prep National Champions, 17 New England Champions and many other recognized athletes, as well as winning the Western New England Prep Championships in their 2010-2011 season.
The riflery team was Connecticut League State Champions for three years running.
The football team won the New England Super Bowl five years running, with students continuing to play at college level.
The baseball team earned four championships in five years
The boys' track and field team won two championships and a runner-up spot.
The Perry Gymnasium contains a basketball court, rifle range, wrestling room, six-lane championship swimming pool, Nautilus center with free weights and locker rooms. The Squash Center features four squash courts, while the Hirschmann Tennis Courts (10 courts) provide for seasonal play. The campus includes extensive playing fields and courts. Tisch Field House, completed in January 2009, is connected to Perry Gymnasium. It houses an additional four squash courts and two basketball courts with an all-purpose surface to allow for indoor practices for various sports throughout the year. The field house also contains athletic training facilities.
Programs in the visual arts include studio art, photography, multimedia, architecture and ceramics. Theater and music programs include acting, dance, chamber ensemble, women’s choir, jazz ensemble, wind ensemble and private lessons in instruments including vocal training.
The visual art department mounts displays throughout the campus with artwork, photography and sculptures. The department also collaborates with the English department to produce an Arts Review Magazine filled with work by current students.
Suffield’s Performing Art Center also presents many performances for the community throughout the year, such as a Fall Arts Festival, winter musical, spring play, guitar show, dance concert, and vocal and instrumental concerts. Recent performances have included Noises Off, In The Heights, The Crucible, Spamalot, August: Osage County, and Into The Woods. Suffield won Best Play at the Connecticut Halo Awards in three consecutive years.