(The text here is edited in minor ways from the speech I gave last Thursday to the Germantown Chamber of Commerce.)
Thank you for the invitation to be here today. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to speak to this group because a good school and a successful Chamber have important characteristics in common. A good chamber of commerce and a school worth its salt are forever looking to the future and not simply wishing for it to be better but working to make it better. Additionally, a chamber, like a great school, is forever looking to make connections, to tie things together, to bring together disparate visions of what is next for a community under one wide umbrella. Our shared work, the work of a school and the work of a chamber of commerce is to help imagine, design, and build the world to come. Both a chamber and a school are invested in their communities—their futures are comingled with the future of the communities they serve. The tag line of this Chamber—“Community, Partnership, and Growth”—is one that our school aspires to. St. George’s Independent School’s tag-line also hits powerful notes for me: “active learning/agile teaching to build disciplined minds, adventurous spirits and brave hearts.”
St. George’s, now a vibrant day school of well-over 1100 students on three campuses, has its axis, and original campus here in Germantown on Poplar Road. Its history begins here, and it continues after almost sixty-years to have a deep taproot on the Germantown campus. I was on the Germantown Campus Monday for our Opening Day. Teachers, Administrators, and a Jazz trio greeted parents and students back before gathering in the Chapel for our Opening Convocation where we not only sang and prayed together, but we also heard two fifth graders give their fifth grade speeches—a rite of passage for all of the oldest students there. They were remarkable speeches made more impressive because this young man and woman standing behind the podium were speaking on the first day of school to a full congregation. They were funny and confident; they were prepared and poised. They expressed gratitude; they were optimistic. It became easy, while listening to them speak, to imagine them becoming the sorts of adults we want serving and leading in their community someday. When they finished, the applause was warm and celebratory.
I chose to leave a school I continue to believe in deeply because I found the distinctive mission of St. George’s wonderfully compelling, and I was attracted to this school in large part because its ambition is uniquely tied to the best ambition of its city and surrounding area. At my core, I believe that a key, perhaps THE key, to the sustainability of our schools is the extent to which we are aligned with the best ambition of the communities in which we exist. In short, we have a responsibility to be focused on something greater than ourselves, and in living out this responsibility we also ensure our own relevance and legacy. Much of my career as a teacher and an administrator represents this belief, particularly the last two schools where I have worked—Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio and The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Both institutions strive to be good neighbors—institutions that strive to act in a way that parallels the highest expectations we have for our students. At Hawken, this meant creating an urban campus designed to be a center for experiential and service learning. At Westminster, it meant educating young people about the principles and practice of philanthropy, while promoting the value of service learning throughout the school’s curriculum.
While the work of these two schools is remarkable and I am proud to have been a leader within each, St. George’s offers a uniquely powerful vision for what the future of partnership can look like. Founded in 1959, St. George’s is both an old and a new school, and its model represents a powerful manifestation of its Episcopal roots and its vision for the contribution the school can make to each community where it has a campus—Germantown, Memphis, and Collierville—and beyond. The school’s three campuses: the original campus here in Germantown, another lower school in Memphis, and a middle/upper school just over the line from Germantown in Collierville are bound together by a shared mission and philosophy. The Germantown arm of the school is old—it served elementary students in grades PK-6 for nearly forty years before the other two campuses existed. St. George’s is also new—in the mid-1990s the school launched a capital campaign to expand to the middle/high school grades by building on donated land in Collierville.
Here is where the story gets really interesting: as fundraising began for the Collierville Campus, a group of anonymous donors approached the school about funding a second elementary campus in the city of Memphis to serve families who valued education but didn’t have the means to afford or access a high quality independent school education. The anonymous donor group gave an initial $6 million gift, and the development of a positive partnership with Holy Trinity Episcopal Church allowed the school to open the Memphis campus in 2001. Importantly, this year marks an exciting and historic moment for the school because this year our Senior Class, the Class of 2016, includes the first group of students who started on the Memphis Campus. Their graduation reminds us that this school is just now coming fully into its skin.
Each campus represents a necessary strand of our DNA with the Germantown Campus representing the original strand. Long before I arrived at the beginning of July this year, the school created concise language for the value of the model: “We believe the St. George’s model gives all students meaningful experiences in diversity, enriches the learning experience for all students, and prepares students to be successful adults. We also believe that this model sows the seeds for a better Memphis.”
Underpinning all this is the belief that our students will be better equipped to navigate a complex world if they learn to navigate complexity now. Our belief is that standing shoulder to shoulder with others with a wide range of backgrounds helps young people grow into become adults better prepared to engage an increasingly dynamic and quickly changing world. Learning to live into this complexity helps young people develop the requisite skills. I am certain that the world needs the people St. George’s strives to graduate.
We know that St. George’s fits into a much larger tapestry of educational opportunities in Germantown. Two examples of institutions doing vitally important work are Bodine School and The Madonna Learning Center. With its 43rd anniversary approaching next month, Bodine School provides an invaluable service to students with dyslexia and reading differences. The Madonna Learning Center, with its recently completed new facility, meets the needs, both educational and social, of young and adult students with special needs. And there are, of course, more…from the Bowie Reading and Learning Center to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and from the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf to the Municipal School District, which on its own serves over 5400 students, Germantown has a wide-range of educational options.
I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate our desire to be a good partner and neighbor. Our Campuses are constantly in use by camps, churches, and athletic teams. I am looking forward to our widely known annual Arts Alliance Show in particular. Always a community favorite, it will be happening at the Collierville Campus from November 5th through the 7th, and it will showcase a wide range of the best artists in the Memphis area. I hope you will join us.
A colleague of mine recently described a cartoon she had seen that may have some relevance to the issues a school and a chamber of commerce try to overcome. In the cartoon there is a small boat on the water and four people in it. Two of the people are on the low end of the boat, bailing as fast as they can because the gunnel is slipping below the waterline. The two other folks on the boat are on the high side, and dry. One of those two looks at the other and says, “thank goodness that is not us.” Of course, they fail to recognize we are all in the boat together. We are connected, and thus we owe it to our students to teach them to make meaning from that connection, to value it and to deepen it, for in doing so they can become the generation best suited to face the opportunities and challenges that inevitably lie ahead.
Thank you so much for this chance to join you today. It my hope that we can use today as a catalyst for becoming even more connected and even better neighbors. I also hope you take the chance to learn more about our school.