By JORDAN RHODES
Photography by CHICHI UBIÑA
“I have a dream that one day I will be able to take care of my family and we will live a better life,” writes Christian, whose words I recently found displayed in a hallway in Stamford, CT. What makes this so powerful is that Christian is only 11 years old, and this was part of an art project at Waterside School where he is a student. The Martin Luther King-inspired assignment encouraged the children in each of the Kindergarten through 5th Grade classes to state their life’s aspirations, and other responses included “I have a dream that I will go to a great college one day” and “I have a dream that I will be a dentist or a doctor when I grow up. I think I will be both.” The reason these words are remarkable is because the kids at this privately-funded, independent school all come from underprivileged backgrounds, and before attending, these dreams were likely impossible to achieve.
When I first stepped through the front doors of Waterside School a few years ago, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that something extraordinary was happening just beyond the Greenwich border. Founded by Chip Kruger in 2001 as an academic alternative for the area’s lower-income children to receive a private school-quality education, each accepted child receives a near-full scholarship that carries with it certain simple but vital stipulations. Applicants must demonstrate solid potential and eagerness to learn, and their parents must also pledge to reinforce the school’s moral code and commitment to scholastic excellence at home. What results is nothing short of a miracle, a kind of academic alchemy, or as Executive Director Duncan Edwards puts it succinctly, “a little slice of perfect in a world that is anything but.” And perfect, it is. Walking around the corridors, children in school uniform can be seen participating in classroom group activities, while a joyful blend of young voices can be heard echoing off the walls of the gymnasium. Impressive artwork inspired by Jackson Pollock and Claude Monet line the hallways, and exuberant singing wafts from the upstairs music room. It is clear the children are incredibly grateful to be there, and you can feel it radiating throughout the building.
The achievement of this kind of perfection is clearly the result of impeccable leadership. Jody Visage has been the Head of School since 2004 and was honored in April at Waterside’s first fundraiser. More on the fundraiser later, but prior to the event I had the privilege of previewing a video created for the attendees by Jonny Duennebier, the school’s talented music director. The video, a tribute to Duennebier’s mother Visage, contained glowing messages of love, gratitude and thanks from students and parents. As I watched with tears streaming down my face, it was obvious that Visage has been instrumental in turning the school into what it is today, and the impact she has had on these young lives and their families is profoundly positive and permanent. She’s not alone in this feat though, and along with Assistant Head Jamel Keels, who will assume Visage’s role when she retires this spring, a dream team of passionate educators has been carefully curated. They are changing the way we look at education, to focus not only on academics but also on the child as a whole. As a result of this, they’re also changing lives.
On a separate occasion, as I was wandering around taking notes for this article, the school’s physical education teacher Peter Hennessy offered to give me a tour, explaining that he left a job as a professor of foreign studies in Seoul, Korea when the school came calling. He never looked back. I later came upon a bulletin board where a student had written of Hennessy, “my P.E. teacher always says to have confidence. He taught us to say ‘I believe in myself.’” The student goes on to write that she can do anything, and it’s because of this kind of encouragement. Later on, third grade teacher Julie Schaut caught me admiring another class project and took the time to happily explain it to me. Most of the students at Waterside School are second and third generation immigrants, and the children’s assignment was to interview a family member born in another country. More than anything I was moved by the words they wrote in their final essays, such as, “in life you need to be grateful for what you have, and work hard for what you need” and “in my life I now know the best choices will always be the hardest.” That is pretty profound stuff coming from a group of 9-year olds, and both assignments show the incredible effect the teachers have on the students. It is also clear that everyone who works here views it as both a privilege and a passion, and the school is able to recruit these highly-talented and sought-after educators because they all want to be part of something greater than themselves. As Keels told me when I congratulated him on his upcoming promotion to Head of School, he’s “the luckiest guy in the world.”
But while the heart of the school is the devoted faculty, its backbone is clearly its Executive Director who is steadfastly committed to ensuring the school’s legacy continues. Since 2003 Edwards has worked tirelessly to make sure students receive the support and education they deserve, so that they have the ability and opportunity to go out and change the world. He is highly regarded in the Greenwich area as the former Headmaster of The Brunswick School, but he is now even more revered for his fierce stewardship of Waterside School. Along with his wife Sally, the two also focus their efforts on fostering the futures of each student. According to Edwards, there are gaps in achievement and opportunity, which is something they are working to rectify. The school is known for helping students with post-graduation placement, and graduates regularly move on to attend places like Greenwich Country Day School and Sacred Heart Greenwich before advancing to some of the top universities in the country. I have also heard many alumni comment that Edwards and Visage continue to follow up with them, constantly checking in to see if they are keeping their grades up, or helping them find internships and jobs, which have impressively included employment at companies like Google and Bloomberg. This love and ongoing support are two of the many reasons why the students at Waterside are experiencing such great success.
As Waterside School continues to grow, so do its financial requirements. Currently, the school is funded almost entirely by private donations, with tuition only covering 8% of expenses. In order to become more self-sustaining, some changes will need to be made to its financial model. Thankfully, two local events are trying to address that. The first event was the aforementioned fundraiser held at the school on April 27th, where Visage was honored for her service. Alumni spoke, the 5th Graders sang, and the video was played for the more than 400 attendees, most of whom shared my tearful reaction and instantly fell in love with the school and its mission. The second event highlighting Waterside is the upcoming Greenwich International Film Festival, which will be honoring Edwards for his longtime service to the school as well as to the community. According to Wendy Wear Stapleton, the festival’s Founder and Chairman, “Duncan Edwards is a true example of a Changemaker. After serving for 14 years as the beloved headmaster of The Brunswick School, he decided his next chapter in life was to help marginalized children within our community…Duncan leads by example with a humble and dignified heart that is dedicated to educating all children regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status.”
It is the hope of all those involved with the school, that these two events will bring in new interest from the area, as well as new donors and volunteers. I can think of no cause that is more exemplary, or that has such a dramatic long-term impact. The Waterside School is changing the lives of children and their families, who are then completing the virtuous circle by impacting the lives of those they meet – myself included. It is giving hope to those who may not have known it otherwise, and it is giving them a future they likely could not have imagined anywhere else. As Edwards puts it, “this is the American Dream – children working to become all that God intended; parents striving, wanting only one thing – a better life for their own; and so many lending a hand because they can, and because that is the American way.”