The Head’s Letter: Responding to a Changing World

Carson's Corner, named for Carson Head, SGIS Class of 2014. "FIGHT LIKE A KID"
Carson’s Corner, named for Carson Head, SGIS Class of 2024. “FIGHT LIKE A KID”

The Head’s Letter is a monthly newsletter largely for heads of independent schools. Published by Educational Directions Incorporated, it focuses on topics of particular importance to school leaders. They were nice enough to ask me to write the piece I copied below as the cover of their December edition.


The topic I discuss in The Head’s Letter should be no surprise to people with whom I have worked or who regularly read the blog: I have been writing about Progress Culture for years now, and I have been highlighting the need to learn from and create partnerships with entities beyond our schools for almost as long. As we look to move our schools’ ability to deepen learning for our students forward, it is imperative that we lean into the learning we can do beyond the confines of our respective campuses and curriculum.

At St. George’s Independent School (SGIS) we are energized by this aspect of our work–we call it SG901. So far the most visible artifact of this effort is the St. George’s Bunkhouse, which represents an unprecedented partnership with Memphis’s City Leadership and Serve901. You can read about the October 2016 opening and ribbon-cutting of the St. George’s Bunkhouse HEREIt is worth reading particularly for the remarks of one of the members of the Class of 2017, Alton Stovall, who spoke at the ceremony.


Over the weekend the SGBunkhouse, located in the Historic Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood, served as a great location from which to go cheer on runners in the St. Jude Marathon. SGIS’s relationship with the work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is profoundly close due to two SGIS students–Carson Head, Class of 2024, who passed away in the summer of 2015 as a result of childhood cancer and Adam Cruthirds, Class of 2016 who continues his cancer fight now as a freshman at Rhodes College. (You can read a talk Adam gave exactly one year ago in an Upper School Chapel Service HERE). Supported by faculty and Upper School student volunteers, around sixty members of the SGIS Lower School community, families and students from both our Memphis and Germantown campuses, spent the night in the newly renovated SGBunkhouse space. On Friday night they made posters to cheer on the runners, and they played games, ate pizza, and watched movies. On Saturday morning they ate pancakes before heading out to cheer the runners. Many more members of our school community–students from each campus and division, alumni, parents, and faculty–participated on Saturday as runners, walkers, and cheerers.  It is an example of a kind of community engagement we would like to see growing through the SGBunkhouse: an opportunity to connect with each other AND with the community where we live. 









The SGIS Three Campus Model: Sustainable Approach to Critical Work


The  St. George’s Independent School (SGIS) organizational model is unique, and often in my short tenure as Head of School, I have been asked by colleagues around the country about how all the moving parts work together. With that in mind, I think writing the clearest description of the model I can might be helpful to those who seek to challenge the status quo of how independent schools align (or don’t) with the best ambitions of their cities/areas, as well as with like-minded philanthropic resources and community partners.

Almost six years ago when NAIS held its 2011 annual conference in Washington D.C., the theme was “Private Schools with Public Purpose.” Before, and even more after, the conference the theme fascinated me because I had difficulty seeing how our schools would do more than make baby steps in this direction. I sought to find examples of “private schools with public purpose” that were doing more than simply giving a sort of well-meaning lip-service to this idea. At the time I was working at Hawken School in Cleveland, which perhaps as much as any school I could name at the time was leaping in to this space through its commitment to the Gries Center for Service and Experiential Learning, an extension campus in the University Circle Area of Cleveland. Later during my time at The Westminster Schools, I joined a community that had a multi-faceted approach to “public purpose” though the Glenn Institute, as well as the Center for Teaching. Additionally, in reimagining the priorities expressed through our use of time in the school, we not only reinvented how we would use time going forward at Westminster, but we opened the door to stunningly expanded opportunities to partner with the community of which we were a part and to which we strove to contribute.

Grounding all of this work is the idea that our schools have a responsibility to graduate students who are on a trajectory to contribute to the health and ongoing improvement of the communities in which they will work and live. In order to do this best, the characteristics and actions of the school must mirror the characteristics and actions of our ideal graduates. [Please take a look at our “Portrait of a Graduate.”]

The SGIS model: Founded in Germantown in 1959, St. George’s Independent School operated as an elementary school until the late 1990s when the school undertook a capital campaign to develop a beautiful 250 acre campus on the Wolf River in Collierville designed for students in grades 6 – 12. At the same time an anonymous donor group challenged the school to create another pre-K–5th campus in the City of Memphis to serve families who would not otherwise be able to access or afford an independent school education. Today SGIS serves about 1100 students on three campuses–two elementary campuses, one in Germantown and another in Memphis, and a third campus for grades 6 – 12 in Collierville.

Serving 147 students in pre-K–5th grade, the Memphis campus, founded in 2001 is unique in that virtually all of its students receive financial aid based on need, and approximately 60 percent qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. To create a sense of community and camaraderie, each year students from both the Memphis and Germantown campuses participate in numerous events together, and they follow the same curriculum. Students from both the Memphis and Germantown campuses benefit from interacting with each other and developing friendships. These relationships promote unity in an area that historically is divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. This is a city that at various times has pulled itself apart, and through our school we are ambitiously trying to be part of the glue that pulls it together. The Memphis campus attracts families from more than 30 ZIP codes. SGIS as a whole draws from over 50 ZIP codes. The first class of students who began their educations on the Memphis campus graduated in May 2016.

Financial Model: To launch the Memphis campus, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church donated the facilities. A group of private donors provided $6 million in seed funds, and they continue to provide ongoing financial support. About 80 percent of SGIS’s operating budget comes from tuition and fees. The second-largest source, at 15 percent, is private gifts. Students at the Memphis campus pay tuition on a sliding scale based on income. The school’s full pay tuition appropriately aligns with, if it is not slightly lower than, the other top independent schools in Memphis.

Sustainability: The campus relies heavily on donations, drawing on an investment from the donor group to fund operations. We are working to increase the corpus of the investment to ensure sustainability in perpetuity. [If you would like to participate in supporting the Memphis campus, please contact our Advancement Office at 901-261-2340 or visit us on-line HERE ]

Staying true to the mission: Opening the Memphis campus was a unique and complicated idea both because of challenging logistics and because of the racial and socioeconomic divides in  the Memphis/Shelby County area. It operates on a different business model than the other two campuses, and it requires different staff and strategy. Members of the school community work diligently to build relationships across these socioeconomic and racial differences so that all SGIS students may benefit. Communication, planning, and collaboration are essential components of success.

Frequently Asked Questions:

“Does the tuition from the Germantown and the Collierville campuses support the Memphis campus?”  No. Tuition from the Germantown and Collierville campuses does not support the Memphis campus.  Germantown and Collierville tuition is used solely at Germantown and Collierville. Gifts from donors, as well as the tuition paid by Memphis campus families, support the Memphis campus. All Memphis campus families pay some portion of tuition, depending upon financial need.

“Did the creation of the Memphis campus divert funds needed at other campuses?” No. Actually, the opposite is true. The Memphis campus has been a fundraising catalyst for the other two campuses because of a system of challenge matches and releases. We have been able to expand our fundraising net to a larger group, resulting in dollars being released from the anonymous donors’ gift to go to the suburban campuses.

“How is the education of the Memphis campus students paid for and how does the scholarship funding work once the Memphis campus students get to the middle and upper school.” Tuition paid by their families and gifts from donors fund the education of the Memphis Campus students. Scholarship assistance for Memphis campus students follows them as they matriculate to middle and upper school.

[Reading another post, “St. George’s Non-Negotiables: Not Experiments may provide additional, useful background and context]

[To learn more about what is next for SGIS, please read exciting news about our unique partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 through the St. George’s Bunkhouse, a satellite campus in Memphis’s Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood, READ THIS. With 115 bunks in a beautifully renovated space, the SG Bunkhouse gives SGIS a new opportunity for community engagement.]

[To read an excellent telling of “The Story of St. George’s”please follow the link HERE.]


Paul’s Letter to the 2nd through Fifth Grade


[I gave the following talk yesterday morning to second through fifth graders on our Germantown Campus at St. George’s Independent School. The chapel theme for the month is HUMILITY. Before Thanksgiving I spoke on the topic of humility to our sixth through twelfth graders on the Collierville Campus.]

Good morning!

Over Thanksgiving Break I went to Richmond, Virginia, where I grew up, to see my parents, my sister and her family, as well as my aunts, uncles, cousins and their children. An interesting thing happened when I went home last week. You see it had been several years since my wife, daughter and I had been in Richmond for Thanksgiving, and while I was there I remembered many Thanksgivings passed. Sometimes it is hard for grown-ups to remember, I mean really remember, being your age. Perhaps it was all the smells of great food that sparked such strong remembering for me last week. What I remembered most powerfully were images of the kitchen—my grandfather Totten carving the turkey; my grandmother Peters pulling the cover off the amazing Jell-O salad she made; my aunts and my mother arranging dishes and platters of food on the kitchen table. I remember being only just barely tall enough to see over the edge of the table to the stacks of beautiful fine china plates and silverware set there. Can you all imagine me not being able to see over the edge of a table? All the grown-ups pitched in—my father and uncle poured wine for the grown-ups. My cousins and I were allowed the quite rare treat of drinking coca-colas. Sometimes we helped too—carrying the pepper shakers and the salt cellars out to the dining room or making sure the napkins were folded and placed neatly under the forks.

There was a lot of talk and a lot of laughter. Sometimes there were disagreements, but they always passed by the end of the evening replaced by the knowledge that we were a family. While we remain to this day a family with many strong opinions, not every one of them shared by everyone else, our connection was and remains stronger than what might pull us apart. If someone is sick, we share in the pain somehow. If someone has had something good happen, we all celebrate.

This brings us to the scripture reading today from Chapter Twelve of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I believe it is just as much a message to us as it was to the Romans almost two thousand years ago. (Imagine getting a letter from someone who put it in the mail two thousand years ago!) Paul’s letter has landed in our mailbox just in time. Listen to it again:

“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”

What Paul is asking of us is that we treat all of humankind the same way a close family treats each other. This is where it gets hard—super hard. If he was asking this of us with just our close family, that might be hard enough, but he is asking this of us with everyone. Everyone.

In short he is asking us, all of us, to love one another; he is asking us to value others more than we value ourselves; he is asking us to “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer”; he is asking us to share with others who are in need—this is something you all already do through things like Coins for Carson; he is also asking us to celebrate with those who have reason celebrate and to share sadness with those who are sad. These are each challenging things to ask. It is not, however, Paul’s job to make things easy for us. In the last line of the letter we heard this morning, he sums it all up by saying, “Live in harmony with one another.”

Here is where our theme for the month—humility—becomes important. Where are the fifth graders? How would you define humility? [A volunteer from the audience gave a really nice definition]

To live in harmony with others requires us, I believe, to be humble. When we are humble, we recognize that we are not better than others, and we see that we are among the family of humankind and the Children of God. Through humility we see that we can’t do it all by ourselves and that we need others.

A writer named C.S. Lewis offers us helpful ideas about humility, saying that: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Lewis in only fourteen words—“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less”—teaches us that humility is a vital character strength. Being humble allows us to see that we are created by God to be part of God’s family just as connected as my relatives at my family’s Thanksgiving Dinner. To be truly thankful, we must be humble. We must be willing to do our part, to help others, to feel the pain or the joy of others, to live in harmony.

As we head toward another holiday season—the Christmas Season—let’s try to keep Paul’s letter in mind.

Thank you.


Justice Thurgood Marshall and The Bridges for Us to Build

Civil Rights Memorial from the State Capitol of Virginia

My father, daughter, Eleanor, and I took a walk this morning around Virginia’s Capitol Square in Richmond this morning. Having grown up in Richmond, I haven’t been back for a while–it was good to be back on the grounds surrounding the Thomas Jefferson designed building. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful as we walked by the impressive 1858 Washington Memorial, as well as memorials to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Dr. Hunter McQuire. There are a number of other memorials there as well–you should go visit. To me, the most impactful memorial was the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. Dedicated in 2008, it presents a clear and definitive counter-point to the older memorial to Harry F. Byrd, Sr., the creator of and leader of “massive resistance” to Civil Rights.  Byrd’s Memorial, already seeming rather mundane due to its proximity to the epic Washington Memorial, is also dwarfed by the Civil Rights Memorial.

The quotation from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall above one of the four sides to the memorial creates an essential challenge for us–particularly in a moment when so much is happening that seems to pull us apart:

“The Justice System can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls, but it cannot Build Bridges. That Job belongs to you and me.” 

We will be in Richmond until Saturday enjoying Thanksgiving with family, but I know I will take Marshall’s challenge with me back to Memphis. When reflect on Marshall’s words, I think of the places in Memphis where I see the work of building bridges taking place. A number come to mind for me–the Church Health Center, Bridge Builders, Serve901, City Leadership, City Current, and the Crosstown Concourse come immediately to mind. There are so many more. This work remains and will remain important and essential. We all need to put ourselves in this picture.

Civil Rights Memorial from the State Capitol of Virginia, plus Eleanor


Marker Beside the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial
Marker Beside the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial


The State Capitol of Virginia
The State Capitol of Virginia