Helping to Raise Future Community Members, Activists, Citizens, Peacemakers, Neighbors and Friends
Dear GDS Community:
On Friday night, October 19, my three children and I drove to Sixth and I Historic Synagogue where my wife led services for “National Refugee Shabbat.” The service, part of an initiative sponsored by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), was a call to Jews at Sixth and I and around the country to extend themselves to those who seek refuge in the United States and a reminder that the founding narrative of the Jewish people is that we were once slaves in Egypt and now we are free, making it our responsibility to work for freedom for people everywhere.
As head of school, my spiritual life is not typically fodder for a letter. However, yesterday a synagogue in Pittsburgh was attacked by a shooter who on social media cited HIAS’s National Refugee Shabbat as a provocation. Eleven congregants were killed and many more were injured, along with several police officers who had responded to the attack. The massacre is devastating, as is the reality that America remains a place where an individual’s identity or beliefs can engender hate in others.
While heartbreaking and shocking, this attack is not nearly as shocking as it should be. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry are on the rise in our country. In the days leading up to the Pittsburgh shooting, pipe bombs were sent to a number of national political figures and members of the media. Earlier in the week, a white man with a history of violence shot and killed two African-Americans at a convenience store after seeking and failing to gain entry to a black church. As we head toward next week’s midterm elections, the vitriol and dissension in our nation is palpable.
As educators, what does this moment call us to do? What does Georgetown Day School’s history and mission tell us about how to navigate these challenging times?
Of course as parents our thoughts go to our children’s safety. I want you to know that we are committed to taking care of your children. They are each precious to us, and we are committed to providing an environment in which they feel safe, are safe, and can thrive. Each year we take a range of measures to keep our campus safe, working with outside experts and our own security team to evaluate what is working well and what will benefit from further attention. This will always remain a priority. And yet even as we hold our children close, how do we prepare them for the world outside of GDS?
Philleo Nash was Georgetown Day School’s founding board chair and the parent of two of our original seven students. Philleo served Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the latter for whom he wrote speeches, worked to integrate the armed forces and helped create the President’s Commission on Civil Rights. Philleo and others started GDS “to give our children a good, democratic education…built on respect for individuals and their cultures.” He did not believe that the School should be neutral when contemplating the role of students as future citizens. In fact, he saw civic engagement as a central purpose of a good education. “It is of paramount importance that we should develop knowledge and awareness of how we Americans came together to become what we are—and what we would like to be but are not,” Philleo wrote. “It is not enough to assert that democracy is good. It must be lived through and made to be good, in our time and place.”
Our students are growing up surrounded by seemingly intractable challenges. From political polarization to climate change, from gun violence to growing inequality, from rising bigotry to an increasingly fragile international order, the problems that our children will inherit as adults are complex and daunting. Our hope is that a GDS education provides them with tools and values that will empower them not to simply feel subject to those challenges, but to actively contribute to their solutions.
Philleo’s desire for a School “built on respect for individuals and their cultures” means that at GDS we stand proudly and unambiguously against hate and bigotry. It means that we don’t simply “tolerate” difference but that we embrace diversity as both intrinsically good and necessary for an excellent education. It means that we work to create a community that is equally “owned” by each community member. In fact, in the School’s early years of existence each GDS family paid ten dollars for a share of “stock” in the School that reflected a family’s partial ownership. The symbolism was clear. Unlike many independent schools, GDS was not to be an institution where some were “owners” or “hosts” and others were “guests.” Our School was to be equally owned by the entire community.
Further, GDS believes in our students’ agency—in school, in their lives beyond the classroom and, ultimately, in the world into which they will graduate. This conviction is evident in a letter sent to GDS students by Philleo’s wife Edith when she was serving as GDS’s second Head of School. “If you really don’t like the idea of standing on your own two feet and beginning to be the master of your own life—if you’d rather be a chip in the ocean with the mammoth water raising and lowering you and you making no effort at all—don’t come to Georgetown Day School. Ask your folks to help you find a regular school where you’ll not have so much to do yourself.”
We believe in our students—in their creativity, their goodness, their voice and their capacity. These virtues are actively cultivated throughout their time at GDS, from learning about civil disobedience in first grade to gaining insight into political hierarchies in the seventh grade “power” unit to undertaking change initiatives in our High School’s Policy and Advocacy Institute. We believe our students can and will build a better world.
My heart breaks at the thought that our children will grow up inured to mass shootings, whether at schools or in night clubs, at concerts or in places of worship. Our kids should not have to feel endangered by where they go, who they are, or what they believe. And yet even as I grieve at the ways in which our country feels fragmented, I feel hopeful when I walk the halls of our School. I watch our students joyfully and purposefully working to discover, to know, to learn. They are curious about each other—about who they are, who their peers are, and, ultimately, about the world outside of GDS. Their hearts, their minds and their growing capacity are preparing them to build a better world than the one that they are witnessing.
Thank you for your partnership in helping to raise future community members, activists, citizens, peacemakers, neighbors and friends. Our world needs them now more than ever.
Georgetown Day School is a coed, preK-12, non-sectarian private school in Washington, DC with small class sizes and a diverse school community. Our comprehensive, innovative curriculum includes hands-on learning, honors and AP classes, as well as advanced-level math and STEM courses. An education is not just college prep and SAT scores. GDS teachers focus on providing the best education for each child, from elementary grades through high school. The school performing arts program includes theater, dance, and music. The athletics program offers competitive sports for student athletes, including cross-country, track, soccer, lacrosse, and crew/rowing. With our strong commitment to financial aid, an independent school tuition is affordable.