Casting a Vision for a Connected Community

By Brad McEwen

It was somewhat fitting during a recent interview with Geoffrey Sudderth, that the first-year headmaster would broach the subject of the public perception of Albany’s prestigious Deerfield-Windsor School.

Having grown up in Albany with good friends who attended DWS, I’ve always known the educational opportunities the school provides are second to none and I’m well aware that Deerfield students are continually challenged in all academic and extracurricular areas and that the majority of them not only graduate but typically go on to attend excellent colleges and universities—often with scholarships in tow.

But as a parent who recently made the decision to send my rising 6th grader to the school, I was also aware of the sometimes negative view many in the community have long held about the school, despite not really having a basis for those feelings.

“I hear from more people, to be totally honest, who are like, ‘gosh, you know, we didn’t go to private school… We thought we weren’t private school people, or we weren’t welcome, and then when we got here, and once we saw what was going on, we realized Deerfield-Windsor is about something totally different than kind of what our perception was,” Geoffrey said. “Now, when I say that, I’m not blaming the community for our perception. We’ve got own our perception—the way we are perceived in the community. If we’re not out, telling our story and sharing who we want to be, the problem’s looking back at us in the mirror.

“We’ve got to do an increasingly better job of telling our story. I think for a long time we’ve allowed our story to be told for us, because we have not been as engaged in this community as we could be. And that’s not to be critical of the school, or anything. It’s just to say, we’re in a really different, historical moment right now that I believe is deeply about inclusivity, and community engagement and partnering and working together.”

Ever the deep-thinking English major, Geoffrey elaborated by digging further into the idea of Deerfield-Windsor being inclusive while maintaining a certain, needed, exclusivity.

“I think the word ‘exclusivity’ is going to go along with any private school you run across, anywhere in the country,” Geoffrey explained. “And part of that is a good thing. You want people, in the good sense of that word to feel like, ‘oh, this is this exclusive educational opportunity.’ That’s a good thing.

“There’s also a negative when we go down to the B definition of that word, ‘exclusive.’ We need ‘inclusive’ communities throughout our country, throughout our world. We need to be inclusive. I think it’s important when we look at kids that we’re ultimately going to send off, you know, to college and beyond, that are going to be the future leaders—whether that’s in business, politics, whether they’re entrepreneurs or musicians, whatever it may be that is going to be their life’s work—that they are able to engage with the world and be inclusive, and take an inclusive approach. That’s important. And I don’t think you can do that in a vacuum.

“There’s no way we can encourage someone to lead a life of inclusivity it we aren’t interacting with people that are different than us, that we may not know, that may not live in our neighborhood, that may not go to our church, that may not go to our school.”

As Geoffrey sees it, one of the critical steps in making sure the school and its students are more inclusive lies in exposing the community to the things that first attracted him to Deerfield and led him to accept a position as the middle and upper school director back in 2014.

Prior to his time at Deerfield-Windsor, Geoffrey said he was fortunate to have spent 10 years at Westminster, the Atlanta private school he had attended as a student.

“I spent 10 years as a student at that school (and) I was fortunate enough to spend 10 years a faculty member there,” he said. “I got hired to teach high school English and coach. I ran a summer program while I was there. I was dean while I was there. I was really fortunate to get a lot of leadership opportunities there. They helped me get my Master’s degree [at Columbia University], all those kinds of things. So I was in a great situation.”

With such a positive circumstance at Westminster, Geoffrey said his decision to leave and take the Deerfield job, was made really because of what he encountered when he came for an interview—which is the same thing he wants to see spread throughout the community.

“I was in a situation where, even though I had an interest in finding a new challenge, I was also really fortunate where I could be really selective, because I was happy where I was. I wanted a new professional challenge, but I could be really, really picky.

“And when this opportunity came up, and I came down to interview, I was just blown away. I was like, ‘this is a great school. This is a cool community.’ There’s lots of great things going on, and there’s just innumerable growth opportunities. They abound in our school. And I was struck by that. And I was also struck by, once you get in the door at this school, how warm and inviting it is.

“I did the full, eight-hour interview thing and then I hopped in the car to drive home and I remember I called a good friend on the way back home and I was like, ‘I want this job. This is a good setup. It’s a good-sized school. They’ve got a great faculty; there’s great families. It’s a good deal.’”

When discussing that positive experience, Geoffrey also pointed out that it’s not enough for someone in a situation like a job interview to see the good things. The entire community needs to put in a position to feel what he felt. And in his mind that means the Deerfield-Windsor family has to actively embrace the good things about the community.

“I hear too much, ‘once we get them in the door, we’ve got them,’” he said. “Our challenge, at the moment, is, we aren’t doing a good enough job yet. We’re working hard on it, but we’re not doing a good enough job getting out of our door and getting engaged with all the amazing things that are going on in this community. And that’s one of our biggest charges.

“Once you’re a part of this school, you’re part of this community. You know, we can talk to 80 year-old grandparents who sent their kids to Deerfield-Windsor and their grandkids are going to Deerfield-Windsor. We can talk to a 3rd grader and hear why they love this school. It’s a tight-knit community. And that’s wonderful and we don’t ever want to lose that. But it’s now time for Deerfield-Windsor to be a school in the community, rather than a community school.

“That’s one of the things we’re really interested in. We’ve got to get out and get engaged and figure out how we plug in and do a better job.”

To that end, Geoffrey said school leadership has put considerable emphasis on getting students and faculty more involved in things going on outside of Deerfield-Windsor, both to make a difference in the larger community and to expose the DWS family to the issues impacting southwest Georgia and what the school’s role in the community can be.

“One of the things we did this year, our middle and upper school students went out and got into the community in October, and were doing various service projects,” Geoffrey said. “The projects are important, but it’s less about the projects than it is getting kids exposure to what the opportunities are out there so we can learn or determine organic ways for the kids and faculty to ultimately, over a 12 month cycle, be plugged in with different organizations.

“We’re still in the process of learning how to do it. We kind of created this bright, shiny, new toy and we’re still learning all the things that it can be used for. So, it’s going to take time.

“It’s time for us to open our arms and embrace our community and find every way to get engaged.

“To me that’s something our community needs. And when I say community, I’m not talking about Deerfield-Windsor. I’m talking about Albany, GA, which is an awesome place.”

Another important part of what Geoffrey hopes can be achieved by the Deerfield-Windsor family getting outside of the confines of the school’s two campuses, is for the faculty, students and their families to not only get more involved in various community activities and opportunities, but to become more supportive of the overarching educational fabric of Albany, Dougherty County and beyond.

As he sees it, a vital and healthy educational system will ultimately work to the benefit of everyone, Deerfield-Windsor included, so in his mind it’s imperative that the school becomes an important, integral partner.

“We’re finding ways to work with organizations, maybe, that are traditionally seen as competitors, you know,” Geoffrey said. “You’re not going to find anybody in Albany that is a bigger supporter of the Dougherty County public school system than I am. If you look at economic indicators of thriving communities, strong public school systems, that’s right on top. That’s right at the top of the list.

“So me to, what are the ways that Deerfield-Windsor and Dougherty County can be partners and come together, you know, and work together on projects? Those are the kinds of things I’m thinking about.”

“Dougherty County serves 15,000 kids. That’s not ever going to be Deerfield-Windsor. We’re serving 630 kids and that’s about who we are. That’s about what we’re staffed to be able to do, right at the moment. And that’s fine; that’s a good thing. But you’re got the opportunity to help all of those kids see the opportunity that there is to work with all sorts of folks and find ways to—in their own way and in a way that resonates with them—go out and have an impact on whatever communities they’re serving. What a cool opportunity.”

It’s not surprising, when learning a little bit more about Geoffrey’s background, that he would have a passion for seeing communities improved and strengthened through public education.

Like many recent college graduates, Geoffrey said that after he received his BA in English from Colby College he took a job selling “small group health insurance at Blue Cross,” mainly because he needed employment so he wouldn’t end up living at his parent’s house forever.

But he soon realized that while that wasn’t a bad job he wasn’t really being true to himself.

“Nothing against health insurance or Blue Cross,” he said with a smile. “I was there for like three months and I was like, ‘I’ve got to go to the drawing board. I’ve got to figure something out, because I’m not called to be here.’

“I ended up spending a year there. Then I ran into a buddy that Thanksgiving who was involved with a program called Teach for America and he was doing TFA up in Baltimore. Teach for America is a program that—it’s a broad range of ages as time has gone on—but in its inception it was set up as a program that places recent college graduates in low performing or rural public school systems. It’s a two year commitment.”

Geoffrey said he was ultimately placed in the Atlanta public school system teaching 3rd grade and quickly knew he had found a place in education, even if he also realized fairly in short order that teaching elementary school was not really his thing.

“Anybody who knows me well finds it reasonably ridiculous that I spent a couple of years in a 3rd grade classroom, because my personality makes a lot of sense for teenagers,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m the youngest of four so I hadn’t been around a 3rd grader since I was a 3rd grader. And I didn’t go to school to be an educator, so that was a learning process.

“But it’s also the best place I ever could have started because I believe very deeply, the lessons you learn working with young children, they all parlay very easily into working with older children, as well as working with adults. It’s really hard the opposite way. It’s really hard to go from teaching juniors or seniors and then going to a 2nd grade classroom.”

In addition to getting that vital classroom experience that helped him excel once he went to teach at Westminster, Geoffrey said his time with TFA was at its core a way to satisfy his wish to serve a community in a positive way—a desire that continues to this day.

“The initial pull, specifically, to Teach for America was social justice, to be totally frank,” he said. “That may sound funny, coming from somebody that’s sitting in an office at a private school. I mean, I recognize that, but my initial interest really, truly, was social justice. And this crystalized for me a lot as I got more exposure and broader experience.

“When you start talking about inequality, I don’t know that there’s a bigger driver of inequality than access to high-quality education.

“I mean, everybody’s got their bailiwick in this conversation, and I’m biased because I’ve chosen to be an educator and I felt called to education, but if we could somehow—and we’re likely not ever going to be able to do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy journey to be walking—guarantee that for every family in our community they had an educational opportunity that fit their family philosophy, that was excellent, that was going to level the playing field, how much more competitive is our economy going to get if we are well educating every single child that’s strapping on a pair of shoes and book bag every August?

“If we can guarantee that every single child has access to excellent educational opportunities, how much better does our country become if we can ensure that?”

While he can speculate about how much better things can be through community involvement, Geoffrey also understands that no matter how many organizations and causes Deerfield-Windsor students and faculty support, the greatest way the school can affect change in the world is through the way DWS educates its students. That’s why he said the other major challenge he sees for the Deerfield-Windsor faculty moving forward, is making sure that the educational opportunities available at the school are always changing to meet the demands of an ever-changing world.

“Something we talk about a lot, there’s three words that are incredibly important to me that I think about when I think about our kids and the kind of graduates we want to send out—flexible, adaptable, and resilient,” he said. “The world changes by the second, if not faster.

“I get made fun of by our administrative team—not quite as much as I get made fun of at home—because I have reached a point in my life—much earlier than I thought I would—where technology is starting to pass me by. Like up until about two and half years ago I never had any problem with technology. Now, I’m like, ‘How do I turn on my phone? I knew how to do it a week ago, but I can’t figure it out this week.’ And it’s hitting me in a hard way.

“We can’t be sending kids off into the world that are bumping up against this. Because the minute you cease to adapt to situations, the minute you cease to be able to pick yourself up off the ground from a failure and find a new way to attack the challenge… in a sense we’ve kind of ceased to exist a little bit, when we can’t figure out how to go out and adapt.

“I think the world’s changing all around us, all the time, and that is a good, exciting thing. Like, there’s no shortage of opportunity and we should all be fired up about that. But we’ve got to figure out where we fit.”

It’s for those reasons, Geoffrey said, that the school has been undergoing an evolution internally in recent months to find the best way to deliver education to students.

“This is going to sound like a really basic thing, but we completely overhauled our daily schedule,” Geoffrey explained. “The 8:00 to 3:00 part of school has pretty much looked the same around here for as long as anybody could remember.

“We literally spent 18 month studying the adolescent and preadolescent brain and said, ‘how does a 12 year-old’s day need to be designed in order for them to get kind of the maximum learning outcome possible, versus how does an 18 year-old’s day need to be designed? There’s a difference between a 6 year-old and a 12 year-old and an 18 year-old. It’s like three difference species of animal.

“I mean the brain is at so many different stages. We talked to parents about this. We studied a lot of neuroscience. We talked to over 60 others schools that we would like to believe are, you know, aspirational, independent schools across the country for us. But most importantly we talked to students.”

One of the fruits of those discussions has been a change in the day’s schedule, which for the middle school students has created a better opportunity to have access to teachers at the end of the day.

“We just need(ed) to lock a tutorial in at the end of every day for those kids to get a jump on their homework,” he explained. “But by the same token, all of their teachers are going to be free at the exact same time. So it’s like, ‘If I’m having a problem in Earth Science, I know my Earth Sciences teacher is free and I can go, swing around and get help.’

“So it’s really more about kind of rounding out where are the kids, what do they need?”

Of course, any time there are changes being made, not only to schedules and learning paths and also in the way the school interacts with its larger community, there is going to be a healthy level of fear and trepidation that those changes are going to impact the core reasons why a family might choose Deerfield-Windsor. And Geoffrey is keenly aware of that.

Fortunately he said school leadership has not really run into that issue, which he thinks is representative of the fact that the changes that are occurring have been well thought-out and have been designed to improve the school, not alter it just to be changing things around.

“One of the things that’s been interesting to me so far, is we have found far more people that are like-minded than we have found people putting up roadblocks, saying, ‘Oh geez, you’re changing the very fabric of what we’re interested in,’” Geoffrey shared. “That’s been great.

“I mean, you know, I have spent a lot of time—just because I’m a nerd about these kinds of things—both studying leadership and change management, or pace of change. And I’m a big believer that you’ve got to have a lot of projects you’re working on at all times, because not all of them are going to work. Trial and error has been working for a long, long time.

“As long as your ideas are good, and as long as you go all-in on these projects you’re working on, it’s okay to fail. Like, it’s OK to FAIL. Failure is a part of life. And again, I think that’s good modeling for, you know, for the kids we get, that we’re fortunate to work with; because they’re going to fail. They’re going to fail at 6. They’re going to fail at 12. They’re going to fail at 18. And they’re going to fail at 80. But that’s really not the measure. The measure is, ‘So, what are we going to be able to learn from the failure, so we go on and we get it right from this point on?’”

Through that process of trial and error, and being able to learn from mistakes, Geoffrey said he believes positive change will continue to come. In fact, the very idea of change is an important piece of what he believes leads to the most important thing a school, a faculty and a group of students can do.

“Change is a word that I’ve kind of actually grown to loathe in the last few years,” he said. “People hear ‘Change’ and they’re like ‘Change is somehow synonymous with bad.’ I don’t feel that it is. I don’t think Webster would tell us that’s the case.

“But in my experience I am starting to learn that change is synonymous with bad. So, I really have become attached to the words, ‘growth’ and ‘evolution.’ To me, growing is a good thing. Like, if we ever cease to grow, we’re starting to die.

“So to me it’s all about growth opportunities.”

The changes to the daily schedule and the overall approach to how information is presented by teachers also mirror the changes Geoffrey hopes to see in Deerfield-Windsor’s students as they not only learn by gathering useful information, but also as they put that information to use and become the independent thinkers he believes the students should be.

Just as he sees the negative connotation of change really being a positive catalyst, Geoffrey also sees the need for the students to be properly challenged to bring out the best in them.

“I think one of the hard things as an educator is, as an educator we’re not in the—and some of my colleagues would disagree with on this, and that’s a good, healthy thing—but I do not think we’re in the discipleship business as educators,” Geoffrey said. “I’m interested in teaching kids how to think and determine how to assess the world for themselves and have the ability, based on their locus of beliefs, to go out and engage the world in a way in which it’s a healthier place, a place where we can listen to one another, a place we can work with one another at a higher level.

“That’s really important to me. We want critical thinkers, you know.

“What I want is, I want our kids to sit, you know, in their government class or their calc class or their gardening class, whatever it is, and get whatever information that the educator has to impart to them. “But then, the challenge is, how are they going to assimilate that information and what are they going to do with it? That’s what I’m interested in. That to me is true mastery and that’s when you have the ability to serve your community.

“We need kids that are going to be able to think critically so they can go out and lead us in a way that they can be proud of, and then, ultimately, our communities can be proud of. That’s why we’ve got to be creating that opportunity.”

Of course, helping to create that opportunity is the incredible faculty and staff at Deerfield-Windsor, whom Geoffrey was eager to praise throughout our conversation. In that group, Geoffrey said, are some of the best educators this community has to offer and he’s proud to have the chance to work with such an exceptional team.

“We have got A plus folks all over the place,” Geoffrey said with pride. “We’ve got A plus faculty. We’ve got A plus administrators. And we’ve got folks who are fired up about team and what that means. It’s so important. We’ve got all these brilliant and highly motivated people we get to work with—kids, parents and teachers.

“The beauty is, we’ve got this really strong team, in which we’ve got folks that their strengths are my weaknesses, you know. And that is really cool.

“We’ve also got an insanely talented board that I now get to work with—like the amount of talent on our board is really, really impressive. And you’ve got some really diverse perspectives in that room.

“I get to work with all of those folks and kind of think, ‘How do we ensure that this place is here 10, 20 years down the road and is it better than it is today?’ That is a really cool challenge to me.”

After spending an afternoon chatting with Geoffrey and hearing him share his thoughts on a variety of subjects, related not only to the impressive things going on at Deerfield-Windsor but to the exciting way the school is interacting with the community, I couldn’t help but think he is up to that challenge.

In Geoffrey Sudderth, Deerfield-Windsor school not only has an impressive, visionary leader, it has the kind of school ambassador whose passion for his school and his community is infectious.

Whatever uncertainty or doubt I may have had when deciding to send my daughter DWS quickly melted away after our family was exposed to the same things that excited the new head of school during his interview. That we had absolutely made the right decision was further cemented after spending some time with Geoffrey.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen