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Celebrating School Milestones

Wednesday, February 7, 2018  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

“Remember to celebrate milestones as you prepare for the road ahead.”

Nelson Mandela

Schools are quick to celebrate the achievements of their students – top academic scores, sports victories, college acceptances, graduations, and more. But it is important for the schools themselves to recognize successes, celebrate past leaders, and reflect on their histories in an anniversary year.

When leaders at Gaston Day School in Gastonia, NC, started planning their 50th anniversary celebration, they had somewhat of a secret weapon to call on: current Head of School Dr. Richard Rankin Jr. was, in fact, a newly enrolled student when the school first opened its doors on Sept. 6, 1967. He attended classes in temporary spaces at a Presbyterian church until the school found its permanent home in 1970. Rankin finished 12th grade there (second from left in photo right) and was later named school head in 2001.

With Rankin injecting some personal memories into the anniversary plans, the school set to work. “We have enriched our normal events and put a 50th anniversary spin on them,” Rankin said. “It’s made them more meaningful.”

GDS created a section on its web site specifically for the anniversary. For visuals, they rebranded their logo, added a new sign at the school entrance, and printed decals to use on the windows of several buildings. They also added banners to the light poles around campus to celebrate the anniversary and produced a 4-minute video.

One very well-received anniversary addition was the purchase of a 1971 Dodge van which the school wrapped in vinyl artwork depicting the school mascot. (The original idea was to purchase a 1967 Volkswagen van but leaders quickly learned that was cost-prohibitive.) The school has gotten a lot of mileage, so to speak, from the van this year by driving it to different school events, parking it for photo ops, and even participating in a local holiday parade. The van has served as an attention-getter as well as a conversation piece. (The school likely will sell the van after the anniversary year concludes.)

While the school was blessed with a $40,000 gift from an alumnus earmarked to publicize the 50th anniversary, “We’ve done some really creative things that didn’t cost a lot of money,” Rankin said. “And why not do something silly and fun, like the van? It makes an impression.”

The video in particular allowed the school entrée into some community events and rotary meetings to promote school admissions, and the school has enjoyed local media attention recognizing the anniversary. “There is some power in an anniversary to be newsworthy and to gain access to speaking engagements,” Rankin said. “Groups were more welcoming due to the anniversary.”

The school is in a silent phase for a capital campaign that will support the school’s endowment and building renovations and updates, such as replacing the 1971 windows in one of the campus buildings. “It’s an appropriate time to ask successful people to give back,” Rankin said.

Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal School in Memphis, TN, is considering a campaign for its 75th anniversary year but this school year is enjoying a somewhat low-key 70th celebration. The school is dedicating a great deal of time and energy to some new endeavors on campus, including crafting a new strategic plan, developing a new character education program, enhancing curriculum, working on a refurbishment of some space it reclaimed from Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and completing reaccreditation for SAIS.

“When we come to the 75th, we’ll have these new programs well established,” said Brenda Berry, director of communications. They are planning a major alumni event to celebrate the 70th anniversary, bringing in former students from multiple states as well as the Memphis area.

In about two years, the school will start working on the 75th anniversary. In the meantime, this stage has provided an opportunity for school leaders to reflect on their past and form a vision for the future. “The school is an anchor for the community,” said Head of School Thor Kvande. “We’re in the heart of a historic neighborhood, and people come here because of the community. We’re very proud of being a PS to 8th school, our Episcopal identity, and our history and heritage. The connections our students formed here and the lessons they learned are enduring.”

GSL has used its existing school publications as well as social media to acknowledge the milestone year, using #gsl70inthe901 (901 is the Memphis area code.). Periodically they share throwback photos, including some childhood photos of former students who are current faculty.

Brookwood School in Thomasville, GA, is embarking on an historical project to mark its 50th anniversary, which will be celebrated during the 2019-2020 school year. The school plans to publish a book commemorating its founding and journey to date: video interviews with about 35 individuals who either had a role in the founding or history of the school will comprise many of the book’s stories, along with items from the school archives. The interviews might also serve as the basis for a potential video project to celebrate the anniversary.

The book will be released at an annual alumni event in December 2019, and school representatives plan a road tour to visit alumni in select cities. Brookwood received a gift of funding to support the book project but also will invite donors to contribute; donors will have their names listed in the book. The school will also pre-sell copies. Two individuals with school connections were hired to organize the archives and create the book.

Other ideas to celebrate the 50th are still in discussion. “My hope is that the anniversary is a good rallying point for our school, paying respect to those who founded the school and helped bring it where it is today,” said Dr. Randy Watts, head of Brookwood. “It’s also an opportunity to share stories with our students and re-engage alumni.”  

While schools likely would not plan a big hoopla for every achievement or even every five years for an anniversary, many utilize inexpensive resources to recognize the occasions worth mentioning and save greater efforts for major milestones, such as a 50th anniversary. Opportunities to bring the school community, past and present, together can be well worth celebrating. 


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Athletic Directors Conference
January 16-17, 2018 | Charlotte, NC
A professional development opportunity for new and experienced athletic directors from across the region.

Finance Institute
January 16-17, 2018 | Charlotte, NC
An overview of independent school finance for aspiring and early career heads of school.

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