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George Davison Focuses on Community at Grace Church School

By Julie Shapiro | February 27, 2012 7:32am
Students at the Grace Church School, a 118-year-old independent school in the East Village.
Students at the Grace Church School, a 118-year-old independent school in the East Village.
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Grace Church School

EAST VILLAGE — George Davison has spent nearly half his life at the Grace Church School.

Davison, 55, a native New Yorker, arrived at the independent Fourth Avenue school 25 years ago as its assistant head, drawn to the school's mix of progressive teaching and traditional rigor.

Now, after spending the past 18 years as the head of Grace Church School, Davison is overseeing a major expansion as the 118-year-old institution launches its first ninth-grade class in a nearby Cooper Square campus this fall.

Davison has an undergraduate degree in history from Yale University and a master's in the history of education from Teachers College at Columbia University. A father of two college students, he lives on the Upper West Side with his wife.

Davison recently sat down with DNAinfo to talk about his early memories of school and his thoughts on its future.

Q: Were you a good student?

A: I was an opinionated student. I had strong likes and strong dislikes. I was very good at science and math, and I loved history. Languages were always difficult, whether it was English, or French or German or Russian, which are the three languages I studied relatively unsuccessfully.

Q: How about sports?

A: I've always loved athletics, specifically baseball. I was a center fielder. I wanted to be the next Willie Mays. Unfortunately, Willie Mays had much more talent than I did. Now I coach the seventh and eighth graders.

Q: You went to boarding school for part of high school. What was that like?

A: In high school [at the Groton School in Massachusetts] I was a student leader, editor of the newspaper and president of my class a couple times. The projects I did [focused] on a way that school could be more meaningful for the students. We changed the dress code, made breakfast no longer mandatory and organized student events that were relaxed and fun. It was the late '60s and early '70s. School and the whole society were going through a big change. The relationship between teachers and young adults — that, too, was changing.

Q: Did your ideas ever get you in trouble?

A: There were many teachers at that school who didn't like me. There were other teachers who felt like I was barking up the right trees. After I gave one address at a chapel service, a teacher who had been at the school for 50 years gave me Plato's "Republic" and said, "You should read this. This is why the peasants can't have power." It was a fun read.

Q: When did you become interested in teaching?

The Grace Church School is expanding by adding a ninth-grade class in the fall of 2012.
The Grace Church School is expanding by adding a ninth-grade class in the fall of 2012.
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Grace Church School

A: When I was in high school, you could go off campus to a town called Lowell, Mass. and tutor kids who were in the Lowell public schools. When you're at boarding school and you're 17 years old, you want to get off campus. But I also believed in it and enjoyed it. I remember making the comment, "We get to do this work and they pay us too — isn't that amazing!" I mainly tutored math. I'm a numbers person; I do my taxes to relax. My wife thinks I'm crazy.

Q: How did you decide to work at Grace Church School?

A: I was very excited by what we were doing here. We defy definition. It's traditional, there are uniforms, there are traditional outcomes that are expected — but it's not a school that believes there's a single way to teach. What we want teachers to do is adjust how they teach to how students learn. That's not the way everyone operates. Some say, "Here's the standard, now come and meet it." We're saying, "Here's the standard, let's figure out how to get you there."

Q: What else makes the Grace Church School unique?

A: It is a community first and a school second. It is a community that is diverse and inclusive. It's not a country club community. It is a community of the city. The other key piece that makes this place exciting is that it's a value-spearheaded community. Not only do we talk about values, but we live by those values. What we were talking about today [for George Washington's birthday] was faith, loyalty, resilience and persistence, but it can be honesty, it can be inclusion, it can be tolerance.

Q: This fall, Grace Church School will begin offering a high school program. What are your thoughts on that?

A: We're taking the same mission and implementing it at a different level. We're going to go with 80-minute periods instead of 40-minute periods. We're also going to change the nature of homework. Too much of homework is processing, and too little is thinking. We want a lot of the processing to go on in class, when the teacher is there. And one day out of every five is a lab day, where instead of studying theory, you're going to apply it in reality. It could be going to a park and planting the plants you studied in biology class, or it could be going to the Stock Exchange and seeing the way numbers are used.

Q: What is the most important thing you want every student to have learned before they graduate?

A: They have a meaningful place in our society — I want them to know that. That they can accomplish great things.