SAIS Collaboration Series
Published October 2014
By Sarah Stewart
Episcopal Day School’s vision for a new campus arose during a strategic planning session in 2005. Head of School Ned Murray was working with the school’s board of trustees and they agreed that the school needed more athletic space. The current play area outside the 70-year-old historic building was limited and too small. The school had no room to accommodate the changing needs of its current students, much less to grow.
Like many independent schools, EDS was also in the process of reimagining parts of its curriculum to place a greater focus on STEM curriculum and programs that foster non-cognitive skills such as creativity and problem solving. EDS wanted to add more innovative and experiential opportunities for its students. Murray and the board wondered how a second campus might meet these needs, so they formed a committee to search for the land.
Located in the historic district of Summerville in Augusta, GA, EDS has a rich history. The school was founded in 1944 by the Church of the Good Shepherd as a Christian kindergarten and childcare resource for local mothers working in the war effort. EDS was one of the first schools in the area to integrate in 1952, a decade before court-ordered desegregation. The school operates under principles of the Episcopal faith such as a commitment to creating an open and nurturing academic environment, striving for community responsibility, living a Christ-centered life that respects others, and a commitment to racial, religious, and socio-economic diversity. Today EDS teaches around 400 students, grades Pre-K through 8.
Murray has served as Head of EDS since 2003. He sits on the board of trustees for SAIS, is a founding member of the Elementary Schools Research Collaborative (a national consortium of more than 30 large K-8 schools); and serves on a task force working with Educational Testing Service to design the first-ever assessment of middle school students for non-cognitive skills. Before EDS, Murray taught in public education, and at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School and Baylor School. He holds a M.Ed. from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, and recently completed his D.Min. in Educational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary.
In late 2012, after researching dozens of properties, EDS paid $1.15 million for a 28.4-acre track of land, located 7 miles from its campus off Flowing Wells Road. A former horse farm, the land is largely flat and spacious with some wetlands and creeks. EDS does not have a timeline on the property’s development, but anticipates it will cost around $15 million. The campus will house expanded athletics with fitness stations, running trails and a gym; outdoor lab space, classrooms, and gardens for STEM-related projects; and spaces that would contribute to EDS’s leadership programs such as a ropes course and climbing area.
EDS also wants the space to be used as a community resource and has been pursuing partnerships with a range of other organizations in Augusta. The school has had more than a dozen focus groups on how they might use the space with parents and community leaders, plus leaders from Georgia Regents University, Augusta Technical College, Phinizy Center for Water Sciences, Family Y of Greater Augusta, Augusta Red Cross and more.
EDS has a long and close relationship with the Phinizy Center and its Senior Environmental Educator, Ruth Mead. The center is located in the 1,100-acre Phinizy Swamp Nature Park in the Savannah River Basin. It promotes sustainable watersheds and economic vitality through research, education, and public involvement. Mead has been collaborating with EDS teachers for years on field trips for students. In 2013, two EDS teachers completed a Master Naturalist Program offered at the center under Mead’s instruction. Ingrid McNeil is EDS’s 6th grade math teacher and middle school science teacher, while Mary Ann Marriott is its 7th grade teacher and department coordinator. As part of the program, Marriott and McNeil took a kayak tour of the Savannah River and Augusta Canal, learning about its history and conducting experiments. The activity inspired them to design a new activity for their students; a cross-curricular study where the students would take a day-long kayak trip. While paddling the Savannah River, 6th and 7th grade students would hear about its history and economic impact. They would cover topics such as water quality, micro invertebrates, and the biodiversity of the river. They would test for bacteria such as E. coli (Escherichia coli) and calculate flow rates. Students would also write journals about the experience or study related poetry.
Marriott and McNeil say the experience is the type of cross-curricular, issue-based, project-based learning that they hope to grow at EDS, and the new property, with its land, wetlands, and creeks will provide ample opportunities. In addition, EDS is working with ATOMS (American Teachers of Math and Science) Placement Services on developing a STEM Strategic Plan. After a visit to the campus last spring, ATOMS provided the school with a 72-page report, reviewing and recommending ways for EDS to improve its STEM programs.
EDS is also partnering with different community organizations on developing leadership programs that will take place at the campus. EDS has partnered with the Augusta Red Cross Youth Board since 2009. Lynn Reese is the Director of Community Education and Volunteer Resources for the Red Cross and has overseen its youth board for 25 years. She says there are few leadership resources for students in Augusta, a need her organization has strived to meet. The youth board is comprised of 70 diverse high school students from 21 local schools who identify and lead service projects. The group runs a leadership middle school conference every year, and in 2009 they found themselves without a space to work. Murray reached out and offered EDS’s main campus, as well as their technology and team building supplies to support the conference. In the last five years, the program has grown from serving 70 children to serving more than 600. The children learn skills like public speaking, dealing with bullies, problem solving, and other life skills. With the new campus the two plan to incorporate a ropes course and other activities into the program. “Ned is a true visionary,” Reese said. “He’s a mentor to our high school youth board and an asset to our program. We so appreciate his willingness to partner with the Red Cross and help the youth. They adore him.”
While it was natural for EDS to include many of its current partners in developing the new campus, collaborating with leaders in higher education was more unique. Murray regularly speaks to groups such as the Rotary Club of Augusta, Augusta South Rotary Club, Leadership Augusta, and Leadership Columbia County, about trends in K-12 education. Last January, he was invited to speak at the TEDxTelfairStreet, the first TEDx event in Augusta. Murray discussed the many disruptions occurring in all fields of education, how the skills children need have changed, and how online programs are changing higher education. In early education, he discussed the need for a greater focus on non-cognitive skills such as resilience, creative problem solving, collaboration, cultural competency, and ethical values. He also discussed the importance of viewing education on a continuum, instead of the current divide between primary school, secondary school, and college.
Following the talk, Murray was approached by Dr. Roman M. Cibirka, then Provost for Academic Affairs at GRU. Cibirka asked Murray to give the same talk to a committee currently writing a white paper for GRU’s Vision 2030. GRU itself has undergone tremendous change in the last few years. The college was formed in 2012 from Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University. It launched a strategic plan in 2013, and is continuing to develop its new identity in the world of higher education.
Murray’s talk with the school’s Vision 2030 committee was so useful Cibirka invited him to talk to GRU President Ricardo Azziz and the school’s council of deans. To switch things up, Murray suggested the group “flip the classroom” and watch his TEDx talk prior to the meeting; then he could facilitate a discussion about similar disruptions occurring in higher education. The meeting, originally scheduled for 20 minutes, ran more than an hour, with Azziz ceding his time so the discussion could continue.
In developing plans for the Flowing Wells campus, Murray invited a variety of industry leaders, experts, youth associations, and leaders from education to participate in focus groups. Because of their prior connection, GRU was a strong supporter. EDS hosted numerous meetings with its dean of education, dean of science and math, chair of biology, and director of athletics to brainstorm how they could collaborate on the campus’ development and use.
Cyndi Chance, Dean of the College of Education at GRU, said the university regularly collaborates with around 52 public schools in the training of its teachers, but this was the first time it would partner with an independent school. During the focus groups, Chance was able to contribute her thoughts on the new campus and explore opportunities for GRU’s education majors to work with EDS’s students. Its students would be exposed to an independent school environment and could participate in research about STEM programs and the focus on building non-cognitive skills. “Our other partnerships have been primarily for training teachers, but this was also focused on joint research. It’s an exciting project to be a part of,” she said.
GRU’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Clint Bryant will also partner with EDS on a number of new coaching clinics. GRU students seeking a certification in youth coaching could train at the EDS property working with its staff and students. The collaboration would benefit the college, EDS, and the greater community by providing more resources and education for youth coaches. “The new facility would offer our students a chance to get outside of the classroom in real world situations.” said Bryant. “It will benefit the community and help advance the knowledge of youth coaching.”
SAIS President Dr. Steve Robinson says EDS’s diverse and unique collaborations are prime examples of how independent schools can be instruments for change and growth in their communities. “Collaboration has been celebrated in many forms in education for a long time, whether it’s collaboration among students, among faculty, across departments, or with other schools, businesses, or outside groups. It’s a practice that fuels creative problem solving and opens doors to new opportunities. Every great success story in history came from collaboration, whether it was two minds, a team, a department or an organization bouncing ideas off of each other, sharing resources, and seeking a common goal.”
However, while attractive and catchy, Robinson said collaborating requires work, commitment, openness, and humility. “Collaborations are not always the natural way or the easy way. It takes time and skill to work with others, and the more people you involve, the more complicated. But, that’s when success comes down to leadership – leaders who can see where we need to be and inspire us to work together to get there. Independent schools are filled with great leaders and as our schools continue to look outside their doors for growth and opportunity, we will continue to see many meaningful successes.”
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