Mission, History & Future
The mission of The Greenwich Country Day School is to enable all children in our care to discover and to develop what is finest in themselves—to achieve the highest standards in their studies, in their play, and in their character.
We are committed to the ideal of a coeducational family school. We recognize that every child is an individual who possesses unique talents and abilities. We promote consideration of others, value diversity, and teach respect for all people and our world.
The Greenwich Country Day School maintains high academic standards, a broad and balanced curriculum, and time-honored traditions. We encourage children to take intellectual risks. The school prepares students for rigorous secondary school studies and endeavors to foster a love of learning that endures.
We believe the quality of our faculty and staff is essential to the achievement of our mission.
The Greenwich Country Day School challenges students in mind, body, and spirit—for their personal growth and for the common good.
GCDS Strategic Plan 2012
Today, more than ever, we face incredible challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities in elementary and middle school education. As a school, we recognize the importance of preparing students for the 21st century. Achieving this goal requires adeptly blending innovation and tradition: refining and improving our educational program, while preserving our school’s enduring values.
To remain true to our mission, GCDS has established three strategic goals:
- Educational leadership in the 21st century
- Culture and character—continuing GCDS traditions
- Financial stability
The goals set forth in the 2012 Strategic Plan reflect our determination to offer an exceptional education that remains relevant to the needs of today’s learners.
Manners, Marbles, and Morals
Douglas Lyons, GCDS Headmaster 1992 – 2004, on the history of The Greenwich Country Day School
The student body and faculty, October 1926.
When my children were young, they would often ask me to tell them stories at bedtime. Some nights they would ask to hear stories that were “real.” Other nights they would request a “Daddy story,” which would require me to conjure up a tale on the spur of the moment.
Stories reach children at the emotional, image-making level and are often surprisingly well remembered. If I invented a bedtime tale about a tiger that played soccer and wore hot pink cleats and then retold that story a few weeks later, accidentally describing the tiger wearing neon green cleats, I would be immediately and emphatically corrected.
Stories introduce children to other worlds but also to other possible “selves”—inspired by the lives of people they can admire. Through the memory of a compelling narrative, children have access to people and ideas that can inspire or provide strength at times in life when it is needed.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, writes that “successful enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to define their core identity.” They “preserve core values, while stimulating progress.” According to Collins, the same applies to families. Research confirms Collins’ theory, providing evidence that the children who have the most self-confidence have what child psychologists call a strong “inter-generational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
The best schools also instill a sense of inter-generational identity and purpose. Traditions, symbols, ceremonies, and stories help students understand that their lives are connected to those who came before them and also to those who will follow. An understanding of legacy can instill an understanding of responsibility.
Former Headmaster Doug Lyons addresses Upper School students in the Performing Arts Center.
Last December, Adam Rohdie and members of the Parents Association invited me to return to campus to deliver a presentation on the history of GCDS to students and also to parents. Adam knows that it is a story I love to tell, especially to students—many, perhaps most of whom will spend more years on the Country Day campus than they will spend in high school, college, and graduate school combined. The history of Country Day is their story. The wonder years of their education and their dispositions toward all future learning have been shaped by people and experiences on Old Church Road.
The immediate challenge in the assignment was the task of deciding what history to include and what history to ignore. Mark Twain once said that it cost him 25 dollars to uncover his family tree. It cost him 50 dollars to cover it back up. I decided to focus on the people and the times that were most significant in the sense that they were “defining”—creating the core values, the DNA of our school. There would be five themes, beginning with a tribute to our founders.
Headmaster John R. Webster addresses a morning assembly in 1949.
Most American schools (90%) are public schools, established by state governments. Of the remaining 10%, half are religious institutions, predominantly Catholic. The remaining 5% consist mostly of schools that are the creation of an academic Founding Head. Less than 1% of schools in the U.S. trace their origin to a parent or group of parents who possessed both a dream and a plan.
In 1925, three Greenwich mothers: Dorothy Baker, Jane McClelland, and Florence Rockefeller became enamored of the “Country Day School” concept, which was a movement in education that originated in Baltimore in the late 19th century. Country Day schools sought to combine the warmth of family life in a day school setting with the academic rigor and character-building programs of the best boarding schools. An expanse of land and opportunities for children to play and explore outdoors was important to the mission.
Greenwich seemed a perfect place for a Country Day school. In the early 1900s, the town was more “country” than “suburb.” Large estates (some of them large enough to house a school) and expansive tracts of open space were abundant. Belle Haven and Conyers were still working farms.
The Warner estate, which became Country Day in 1927; currently the Middle School.
Respect for the educational impact of families—the belief that teachers and parents were partners in raising children—was a crucial part of the Country Day School model.
Florence Rockefeller offered her barn (a large and beautiful structure) as a temporary facility (the barn is now the childcare center on the Greenwich Academy campus!) and the three founders made a decision that would prove to be providential in its wisdom: the selection of John Lynn Minor as the first headmaster.
From 1925, when GCDS was still a seedling idea, to the current day, Country Day mothers have supported, protected, and loved our school in a manner that has energized all of us who have served the school in a professional role.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Country Day was in its tadpole stage, earnestly building its reputation. Despite the worldwide reverberations of the crash, Country Day mothers insisted that the school be the first priority in their families budgets.
In the 1930s, when the effects of the Depression caused a severe drop in enrollment, Country Day mothers canvassed the town, going “door to door” to inform families of the superior education and life experience the new school provided.
In the 1940s, when wartime conscription depleted the male faculty, Country Day mothers stepped in to assist. When gasoline rationing made it difficult for some students to get to the campus, mothers whose homes were close to Old Church Road offered beds.
For the past 88 years, each generation of Country Day mothers has been as tenacious as the generation before, in advancing the power and prestige of the institution. From the success of fund-raising campaigns to the support of classroom teachers in countless ways, to executive leadership in the Parents Association, the Alumni Association, and the Board of Trustees, our mothers have insured the success of the Country Day model of education as envisioned by Dorothy, Jane, and Florence.
John Lynn Minor—the Original
In all schools, children learn far more than what we actively and deliberately teach. What we teach is one curriculum; who we are is another.
The founding headmaster of Greenwich Country Day, Lynn (as he was known to faculty) Minor was a humble, scholarly, elegant man. Born and educated in rural surroundings in upstate New York and western Pennsylvania, he was an outdoorsman and environmentalist. His adventuresome spirit took him to teaching positions in the Middle East and in Europe before returning to pursue graduate studies at Columbia and to teach in New York City.
In the spring of my first year as GCDS headmaster, I traveled to Florida to spend time with 8 men who were among the original boys of Country Day. All were retired, and all were anxious to see each other and to reminisce.
Over two days I heard stories of childhoods that were mostly idyllic or at least seemed so in comparison to the World War that would become the backdrop of their adolescent years. Our oldest alums had surprisingly vivid memories of school programs, teachers, and events, especially pranks. They all remembered, with special fondness, a man who had been fatherly toward them at a time in history when fathers were often somewhat distant and mysterious to their children.
These boys loved and respected their fathers. They admired what their fathers stood for, and they were proud of their family standards. However, Mr. Minor knew them in ways their fathers did not—in ways that were meaningful, comforting, and uniquely motivating.
On those occasions when a reprimand or discipline was called for, Minor chose compassion and the power of his relationships with students. He was less interested in “exacting justice” and more confident that misdeeds could provide lessons used to instill a healthy conscience. In American education in the 1920s corporal punishment was common—and celebrated in schools that adopted the popular theory spare the rod and spoil the child. Minor was a vocal dissenter to the practice, believing that in every circumstance the dignity of the child should be respected. His faculty handbook warned: Any form of corporal punishment will result in your immediate dismissal.
The values of Country Day that would endure for the next nine decades were articulated and lived by the first headmaster. Among these core values:
- The importance of knowing every student as an individual, each with unique talents and needs.
- The school as an extension of the family, helping parents to raise children who would internalize high standards in their studies, in their play, and in their development as people of noble character.
- The belief that a Country Day education should not only expand children’s abilities but also their interests.
As remembered by Archie Andrews from the class of ’38: Mr. Minor believed that the people who have the best lives are not necessarily the people who have the most comforts. Rather, they are the people who have the most interests. People who have expansive interests are never bored, rarely lonely. They are able to find stimulation, adventure, beauty and meaning all around them; in the natural world, in the arts and athletics, in friendships and through commitments to others, and in the world of ideas.
A final note: the original boys of Country Day remember that Mr. Minor was fascinated by the Far East (exotic and mysterious at the time), especially China. He wanted them to be equally curious, believing that China would someday occupy a prominent role in world affairs. How proud he would have been to know that one of his boys would be appointed U.S. Ambassador to China, before becoming the 41st President of the United States.
In the early 1920s, Americans were reading Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), and a new and enchanting children’s book by a British author (Winnie the Pooh). They were also reading a recently published, best-selling work of non-fiction that would remain popular up to and including the present day: Etiquette by Emily Post. The book had a special appeal in Greenwich, and the town soon became known throughout the United States for its elevated manners.
Headmaster Webster personally shook every student's hand at the end of each school day.
At Country Day, the 1946 appointment of John Webster (referred to as “Sir” by everyone, including members of his own family) as the fourth headmaster marked the beginning of a leadership tenure that would last more than a quarter century and would leave an indelible stamp on the school.
“Sir” doubled the enrollment, tripled the acreage of the campus, and brought countless innovations to the program and daily schedule. He may be best remembered, however, for his emphasis on developing a school culture that would foster habitual good manners. First among those manners was what Webster referred to as “consideration of others,” an awareness and behavior that students were actually graded on. Webster personally shook every student’s hand at the end of every day.
According to Emily Post: Good manners is a thoughtful awareness of other’s needs and feelings. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, regardless of which fork you use.
Amidst the call for technology-driven innovation and in the whitewater pace of change in 21st century schooling, the deliberate cultivation and celebration of good manners may seem a quaint vestige of an earlier era. Not so on Old Church Road; the concluding paragraph in our mission statement reads: The Greenwich Country Day School challenges students in mind, body and spirit—for their personal growth and for the common good.
On the ladder of civility, manners may be merely the first rung, but a necessary rung—and understood as such by all of us entrusted to preserving our culture since the founding of our school. Be it ever so.
A Nobel Prize winning physicist once remarked that understanding the atom is child’s play, compared to understanding child’s play.
On a similar theme, George Orwell penned the statement that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Orwell’s claim is that the athletic program at the famous British school that educated and formed the character of those who became the elite officers of the British Army was responsible for that great victory.
It may be an act of courage for a serious academic institution to include the word play in a prominent place in its mission statement and on the entrance to its buildings (as in cogito, ludus, mores; studies, play, character). In the Country Day School movement, however, all forms of play, including athletics, are considered essential to a complete education.
In the first four decades of our history, the game of marbles dominated free time and after-school time. Marbles tournaments generated great excitement as marbles were won, lost, and traded with avarice. One alum recalls, “It was cutthroat. Future Wall Street moguls got their early trading experience by trading marbles at Country Day.”
The more daring players competed for prized agates, but to the frustration of class after class, faculty member Hector McBean Hart remained unbeatable. Hart’s practice of keeping the marbles he won caused him to be a mildly controversial figure among parents, who believed that an adult player should always return the winnings. McBean had no interest in amassing his impressive collection; he used the game to teach boys to think carefully, assess their abilities realistically, restrain their bravado, and learn to accept consequences. Many years later alums remembered him as one of the most formative figures in their childhoods, despite the fact that he kept their favorite marbles!
Fast forward to 2014: The science of brain development is providing concrete evidence of the cognitive and creative power in play; in imaginative play, athletic play, intellectual play, and in the play involved in artistic and musical endeavors. Neuroscientists have begun to unravel how play and “playfulness” positively affects brain maturation, creative and divergent thinking, social competency, impulse control, and stress reduction.
“Play” and the development of a playful mind have been central to our mission since the original “all-campus capture the flag” games of the 1920s.
And the Presence of the Past
Aristotle wrote, “When we educate, we aim at the good life and since all people disagree in their notions of the good life, they will disagree in their notions of education.”
That assertion is as true today as it was two thousand years ago. At the beginning of a micro-electronic century, the Country Day faculty face the challenge of preserving the standards of the founders while simultaneously exploring new ways of knowing, thinking, and teaching. However, there remains the universal agreement that a Country Day education is and will always be about the acquisition of character.
The culture of our school is the special creation of our founders, leaders, faculty, and parents. In an earlier version of “The Headmaster’s Welcome” on the GCDS website, Adam Rohdie referred to a spirit, an energy on the campus that he believed even a visitor could detect. I agree. Visitors of all types, including visiting former headmasters, see it and feel it.
It is an atmosphere of excitement and engagement, generosity and consideration of others, and an abiding faith in the future. It is an environment that is shaped and sustained by many professionals and support staff who love their work and who feel valued. Most of all, in the terribly busy and productive world that surrounds Old Church Road, it is a sanctuary for children.
And it is a clear reflection of Adam and his leadership. His manner and manners, the magnetic attraction that kids have for him and he for them, his empathy, high academic and moral standards, and his ability to inspire others (from basketball players to faculty to donors) are all components of the totally authentic man at the helm. He is a modern day John Lynn Minor; Dorothy, Jane, and Florence would be pleased.
It is a peculiar thing, this loyalty that people have for institutions—the attachment, the affiliation to a place. It is especially interesting when the school is not in their recent past, but in their distant past. Clearly, it is not the buildings or the playing fields that hold meaning, though seeing them after an absence may trigger warm memories. It is the memory of people that holds graduates close to the purposes, the mission of the school. It is the subtle yet enduring influence of those who taught them, coached them, advised them, reprimanded them, celebrated them, knew them as well as those whose influence was peer to peer, classmate to classmate.
A school is inevitably shaped by the expectations that surround it, and by its history. The complete history of Greenwich Country Day School reads like a novel; there are high hopes, early obstacles, memorable characters, and soaring themes of diligence, honor, gratitude, and service.
It is our story. It belongs to every student, alum, mother, father, guardian, member of the faculty and staff. It is our legacy and our responsibility to keep our school as strong as its mission.