George P. Davison, Long-Time Head of School, to Retire
George Davison has announced that he will retire at the end of the 2021-22 school year. He will have served at Grace for 35 years, including 28 as Head of School. George’s leadership has been transformational. The Board has accepted his decision to retire June 30, 2022, and initiated a search process for the next head of school.
An Announcement from George P. Davison, Head of School & Olivia W. Douglas, Chair of the Board of Trustees
Dear Grace Community,
Schools call the ceremony that ends the tenure of a student or class “Commencement.” We embrace the term at Grace because it is actually the first act of a new phase of life for people who, in some cases, have spent most of their lives at our school. It is a moment for contemplating new opportunities and possibilities, while reflecting on the experiences of their time at Grace. So, it is with those feelings that I officially inform you that my commencement from Grace will occur June 30, 2022, the end of the next school year.
That date will mark the completion of my 35th year at Grace. I was honored to come to one of the best schools in New York as a 31-year-old Assistant Head. Seven years later, I was appointed Head of School. The school is in some ways the same and in so many ways different – a history of growth, change and continuing academic excellence. The key has been to build the new based on the old; to draw on the heart of a consistent mission in creating a school that reflects changing times while preparing its students for leadership with an active ethical consciousness. Emblematic is our High School, which will complete its tenth year next June. In that short period of time, the High School has established itself as one of the most innovative and successful secondary schools in the land.
My time at Grace has been filled with joy, challenge, excitement, trial, tragedy, laughter, sorrow and love, so it is easy to say, as we do at the Passover Seder, “Dayenu” – that each of the blessings bestowed would have been sufficient. There have been so many: an amazingly talented faculty working with wonderful students in first-class facilities. When I arrived, Grace did not exist as an independent entity. It owned nothing. The subsequent independence we achieved allowed us to build a substantial endowment. That financial strength enabled the school to operate in five times as much space with four times as many teachers and more than twice the number of students.
And so, with gratitude, we say, “Dayenu!” The time is right for Judy, my partner in life and career, and me to open a next chapter in our lives while still able to plan for new adventures and challenges and further opportunities to serve – secure in the knowledge that Grace Church School is as well-positioned to thrive, grow and lead, as it was when I became Head 27 years ago.
The heart of the role of any Head of School is not the things of the school but the people in it. The most important responsibility is ensuring the holistic safety of all in our care. Only in a setting of emotional, intellectual and physical safety and belonging can students and adults realize their best selves and thrive in a complex world. Nothing has brought this central truth home more forcefully than the crises of 9/11 and the pandemic, the pain of racism community members reported in @blackatgrace and, most notably, revelations of sexual abuse of Grace students by a choirmaster of the Church in the 1990s. I am proud of how our School has responded to these challenges. I will never forget the profound joy I experienced when I heard the sounds and laughter of students and staff in the hallways when we returned to school in person last September and two days after 9/11. Our Board has also responded thoughtfully and with sensitivity since the abuse revelations surfaced in 2019, but I will carry regret for the rest of my life that students were harmed when I was Head. I am committed to participating in the healing process for the survivors and our entire community now and into the future.
There remain nearly 18 months until my commencement – ample time to ensure continuity and stability during the leadership transition. New leadership will bring fresh perspective to the opportunities and challenges at our school, and that is as it should be. My goal will be to leave Grace in the best possible condition for those who will succeed me. I have had the privilege of serving as Head of School, but I’ve always known that what moves this community forward is the enduring power of its mission and the devotion and energy of its students, faculty, administration, parents and alumni families. Those factors will never change.
I know I speak for Judy as well in saying that Grace will forever be in our hearts.
Dear Members of the Grace Church School Community,
The role of Grace Church School in our lives and its place in the world are a source of great pride and comfort for all of us, and so it is with deep gratitude and respect that the Board has accepted George Davison’s decision to retire at the end of the next school year, June 30, 2022.
It is hard to imagine any leader having had a more transformative effect on an educational institution than George has had at Grace. Driven by his vision and energy, Grace has grown from a beloved neighborhood elementary school – with its founding Episcopal commitment to inclusivity and ethics – into one of the finest pre-K to 12 independent schools anywhere. As seismic changes shook the field of education over the past three decades, George was in front of many of them. He recognized from the outset that Grace’s mission was its most precious pillar; he’s kept it central while expanding the school, building a superior and passionate faculty, and opening up ever more opportunities for learning and engagement for our students.
Transformation. At Grace, transformation truly began with its legal separation in 2006 from Grace Church. Inspired and led by George, this historic change involved complex and sensitive negotiations, allowing not just for independence but preservation of the positive connections between the institutions. The move gave the school full charge of its own destiny – and in this aspiration George aimed high. What followed were multiple expansions with more than $60 million in capital fundraising – and, ultimately, the successful launch of a new high school division at a separate campus just four blocks away. To all of these advancements, more than doubling the school’s footprint and reach, George brought top-notch leadership skills and a growth mindset in planning and partnership, soliciting feedback, making refinements and sharing credit throughout.
Crisis. With characteristic energy, empathy and optimism, George has led the community through multiple crises, including the trauma of 9/11. Many feel that George’s decision to re-open school just days after the downtown terrorist attacks was a singular act of courage, allowing the entire Grace community a safe and familiar place for healing. He guided us through the disruption of the 2008 financial crisis and the heartbreaking loss of Elizabeth Lee. I witnessed George’s detailed plans take shape in the early days of the pandemic and unfold with precision as we approached September. We all should take great pride in the re-opening Grace pulled off this past fall.
Culture. George’s commitment to Grace’s mission has meant centering the student experience while nurturing the people and structures that most contribute to it – promoting students’ confidence in themselves and their abilities, instilling ethical consciousness and providing a rigorous curriculum with opportunities for deep dives of exploration. He actively participates in Grace’s pedagogy of joy in events like the annual Kindergarten science butterfly-release, and those lucky enough to have traveled to Japan and India with him as a chaperone know his personal commitment to experiential learning. George encourages civility, candor and problem-solving in communications. At the same time, he brings measures of levity and informality equally healthy in the culture. Veteran parents still talk of his admissions talks, his auction antics, “long parties, short speeches” and “a community where a school breaks out.” What other head of school cooks for 50 at P.A. dinners or meets personally with every single faculty member during their annual reviews?
A leader in his field. Outside of Grace, George has been a mentor to many, and a recognized leader among independent schools. He served 10 years on the New York State Association of Independent Schools Commission on Accreditation and has participated in 20 accreditations over the years. He’s a past president of the Guild of Independent Schools of New York and chaired the Committee on Trustees of the Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York. He served on the board of the Parent League of New York and the Rodeph Sholom School and currently sits on the Advisory Board of New York City’s Parents in Action, the Advisory Board of Common Sense Media and on the Board of the Windward School. And, finally, our very own GO Project has expanded greatly with George’s longstanding support and board service.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine Grace without George. As with thousands of students who’ve graduated during his tenure, Grace has reached a state of maturity, ready to thrive in a new era of leadership. George’s successor will have the benefit of much to build on. The Board is honored to lead the process of finding this individual. We share George’s view that Grace will benefit from new ideas and fresh perspective.
Our Head Search Committee will be led by Trustee Melanie Weston, former P.A. Chair and a longstanding Grace parent. With the support of a highly respected search firm, Carney Sandoe & Associates, Melanie will lead a team of trustees, faculty and administration members in this process over the next nine-to-12 months. I thank them in advance for their dedication to Grace’s future.
It’s premature to say goodbye. George remains Head for the next 18 months, and he has vital work to lead. Central is recovering from the pandemic and preparations for a return, hopefully, to normalcy next year. Also critical is continuing to address the shortfall between our aspirations and realities as a place committed to antiracism, equity and belonging. And George is unequivocally committed to being part of the healing process to ensue from the revelations of sexual abuse of students in the 1990s by a former Church employee.
Tending to the challenges at hand means saving celebrations for later. When the time comes to say goodbye, we will have more to do and say, not the least of which will be to thank Judy for her role in being George’s support, partner and inspiration throughout. In the meantime, you will be receiving consistent updates from the Search Committee regarding the search process, and I will continue to be in touch on Board-related matters as usual.
Olivia W. Douglas
Chair, Board of Trustees
Grace Church School