In our educational leadership series, we’re introducing you to individuals who shape the landscape and school culture at our partner institutions. This week, meet Dr. Gray Smith, Head of School at Harford Day School.
Meet the Head of School: Dr. Gray Smith, Harford Day School
Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you come to Harford Day in 2014?
Having attended school and then worked in the AIMS community, I knew Harford Day (HDS) had a strong reputation. For us, the decision to choose HDS came down to where Sarah, my wife, and I believed would be best for us as a family. We knew we wanted the intimacy and focus on childhood found in a PK-8 school. The question we kept asking ourselves was: “Where did we meet students who we’d want our own boys to be like?” The confidence exuded by HDS students and their affable and genuine nature hooked us.
In terms of my background, as a middle-schooler at St. Paul’s, I knew I wanted to be a teacher and coach. After college graduation, my first position was as a long-term sub and coach at McDonogh School; then I landed a full-time teaching and coaching position at Boys’ Latin. I taught English and coached lacrosse & football exclusively for about 10 ten years in independent schools from Baltimore to Florida to Kentucky.
I am lucky to have worked for several Heads who encouraged me to consider school leadership. In 2004, I sought to move into a new role and was fortunate to return to BL as the Dean of Students and Assistant US Head.
During the summers, I worked for JHU’s Center for Talented Youth and learned that I liked working with middle and lower schoolers, as much as I enjoyed working in upper schools. So, when the opportunity to be Severn’s Middle School Head presented itself, I applied and feel very fortunate to have worked in that capacity from 2008-2014.
While at Severn, I completed my studies in educational leadership, finishing my Ed.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. Seeking new challenges as a Head of School, I searched for headships and was welcomed to HDS as its 7th Head in 2014.
If you had to describe Harford Day in three words, what would they be? (And why?)
Inquiry-based. Two years ago we sought a way to update our curriculum and the day-to-day methods we use in our classrooms. As a faculty, we selected inquiry-based learning, or IBL, as a means to improve both. As a faculty we read “Make Just One Change,” by Rothstein and Santana, and for the past 20 months have been re-designing our program and our practices based on what we learned. Briefly, IBL turns the Socratic method around and places the student in the position at the “questioner” – traditionally the place of the teacher. Taken within the context of a world where one can Google anything, we are seeking to teach our students to create “un-Google-able” questions and then, through deeper thought and research, find the answers.
Evolving. Any time a Head’s predecessor served for over 20 years, there is sure to be an evolution in program. Harford Day is experiencing a sort of renaissance, as it aims to retain its most respected traditions, but also stretch in ways that more fully encompass philosophies and practices known to be effective for today’s students. IBL is one good example of this, but we are also pushing forward in engineering and technology, bringing a 1:1 tablet program to our 6th grade and building a STEM lab for 2018-19. Harford Day is evolving in other ways too, for example in 2016-17 we opened a 3-year-old program, as a new, earlier, enrollment opportunity. The program more than doubled in size for 2017-18. We have re-visited our overseas travel program, expanding beyond central Europe to Greece and, this summer, to Japan. Plus, the school is seeking to begin international admissions for 2018-19. When students returned to campus this fall they were greeted with a new Dining Hall and art gallery.
Mission-driven. When I arrived at HDS in 2014, the school’s original mission had been revised, but the Trustees felt it did not capture the true purpose and spirit of the school. I agreed, and together we worked on writing a new version. In the midst of drafting and re-drafting, the Advancement Director discovered in the archives the original statement of purpose, written in 1957. When I read it, I thought: “This is perfect.” I took it to the Board and they agreed, so we resurrected the school’s original mission: “To provide disciplined, individualized, education by stimulating and fostering the development of each child so that he or she will acquire sound habits of thought and expression.” In that one sentence, there are three references to a school community committed to a student-centered education.
What has been your biggest challenge at the school over the past three years?
Harford Day is the only AIMS accredited PK-8 school in Harford County, which has its advantages, but also its challenges. In an area that does not have the same independent school culture as, for example, Baltimore County, families are much less likely to perceive the value of a formative private education, saving instead for high school. Communicating that a child’s first 10 years of schooling – Pre-Kindergarten to grade 8 – have a greater connection to a child’s later achievement, than his or her high school years, proves to be a particular challenge.
It is equally challenging to balance a budget while at the same time seeking to advance the school in so many different areas. For example, continuing to build strong compensation packages capable of retaining and recruiting the best talent, keeping up with the rising costs of healthcare, and offsetting the depreciation of our facilities, all while channeling resources into our ever-expanding program, is demanding and takes a high level of oversight. We are constantly seeking new revenue sources, opening new grade levels, hosting Camp Invention, providing morning before-school care, and renting our facilities and grounds to make continued advancement possible.
How do you inspire of love of learning at Harford Day — both at the educator and student levels?
In terms of teachers, inspiring a continued love of learning requires good example setting from the leadership team, a clear expectation of professional growth, and providing both opportunities for teachers to attend classes and workshops and for them to bring their knowledge to us. Finding ways to access the wisdom already within your teachers and to disperse it to the faculty at large is a great way to create a culture of intellectualism and professionalism around the art and science of teaching. Setting aside time and space for teachers to do what they already enjoy doing – learning from each other – is a terrific way to keep this culture alive.
At the student level, it begins, as does everything, with the mission and our commitment to student centeredness. We approach every endeavor with one question in mind: “What’s best for the students?” We communicate with students, and their families, after viewing all matters through the lens of this question. When children feel their teachers always have their best interests at heart, they are most likely to love school and love learning. Furthermore, we always encourage a growth mindset, where a student’s sustained effort and focused practice on complicated tasks is esteemed as much as his or her achievement.
You’re an alumnus of St. Paul School and have held a variety of positions at several independent schools. Why should parents consider an independent school education for their child?
My wife, Sarah, grew up in a part of Kansas where there were no private schools. Her reaction after the first time she was on a private school campus says it best: “Wow! If you don’t want to consider sending your kids to private school, you should never visit one!”
Independent schools emanate two critical components of a great education – they are mission driven and they are student centered. I state HDS’s mission at the beginning of every gathering because all prospective families and all school constituents should know in their heart the reason why we exist. And, it unmistakably centers the purpose of the school on doing what is best for children. Sarah clearly felt that, as do many new independent school parents, the moment she set foot on an independent school’s campus.
There are, of course, many quantifiable reasons why parents should choose independent education. For example, in independent schools, the program is created and administered by the school’s leadership team and its faculty members. Having a high level of ownership and autonomy over what happens in a school and why it happens is incredibly empowering for teachers. As in any profession, employees take a vested interest in the effectiveness of what they create. By contrast, public-school curricula are created at universities or in think tanks, far from the actual classrooms where the lessons will be taught; the program is then handed down to teachers who facilitate its components.
Similarly, private school students spend far less time being tested and are exempt from state and federally mandated public school assessments, like PARCC testing. Character and an expectation of civil behavior during and outside of the school day, a safe – well-maintained campus, small classes where strong student-teacher relationships are the norm, and equal application of challenge and support are all perceptible reasons why parents should consider independent education.
What do you think surprises parents most about Harford Day?
Frankly, the cost. In a good way. Prospective parents expect our tuition to be comparable to rates at similar schools in the Baltimore-Metro area. Our unique position, as the only AIMS accredited PK-8 school in Harford County, makes us better able to effectively control our tuition, as inflation tends to affect Harford County more favorably than larger metropolitan areas. Additionally, because there are so few independent schools in Harford County, prospective parents at HDS have often not experienced the difference between a private and a public educational setting. Our small classes, autonomy from state and federal curricula and testing, a selective admissions process, that we have a highly-educated and veteran faculty, the importance of character in our program, interscholastic middle-school athletics, PK-8 music, art, and foreign language instruction, placement and often merit awards for our graduates at their first-choice high schools, and an inquiry-based curriculum – these are some of the aspects of HDS that most surprise prospective parents.
How do you balance running a school with all of the demands of raising two boys?
I have a great partner to help me with that. My whole family is literally “in” the school this year. James in 1st grade, Ward, in K-Prep 4, and Sarah is teaching Japanese language in the middle school. With both of us working at HDS, the boys get a lot of parenting!
We’re all raising children in a tumultuous world full of volatility, but also full of great promise. It’s my hope that, as a parent and an educator, I can provide an abundant educational experience that will help them, and their classmates, be an integral part of that promise.
What is your favorite way to kick back with the family?
Our top three favorite ways to relax as a family is to build a fire in the fire-pit in our backyard and make some s’mores or to go on a long walk through the woods with our two dogs. But, our all-time favorite kick-back activity is fishing, especially surf-fishing along the Delaware shore. This fall we’re throwing in a camping trip!
This article is part of our school partner profile series. To learn more about Harford Day School, visit their profile in our independent school directory. Photos by Laura Black.