The Pursuit of Excellence, September 2018

Almost exactly one month ago, Girls School teacher and trip leader Liddell Shannon asked me to speak at the closing campfire on the final night of the Girls Induction Week. I was honored to have the opportunity to address the entire Girls faculty and students in the the unique and intimate setting of the fire circle at Camp Green Cove. She asked me to talk about the significance of the school entering its tenth year and to share what was the most compelling factor that helped guide the French Broad River Academy during its start-up phase and through its early years.

I initially thought this would be an easy task. However, I quickly felt overwhelmed as I considered all the different influences and experiences that shaped the institution over time. Was it a class or specific lecture I heard during graduate school? Was it the mentoring and advice from founding board chair John Dockendorf? My mind was swimming in ideas as I tried to formulate my thoughts and words for the quickly approaching closing campfire moment.

And then finally it hit me in a moment of clarity while taking an early morning run around Lake Summit. My epiphany happened to be one of the core character traits we instill in our students.  It was also the key message of a commencement speech I recently heard from former First Lady Michelle Obama. The most significant factor that helped FBRA establish itself and sustain its success was and remains the pursuit of excellence.

I made it very clear to co-founder David Byers and founding math teacher Frazier Worth that everything we did in that first year would be in an effort to achieve excellence. Whether it was teaching algebraic equations or washing our donated minivan on a Friday afternoon, we would do things the right way, or not at all. I knew we had the capacity to be excellent in all that we endeavored, and I wanted to establish that habit and cultural piece right from the get-go. I was not interested in pursuing anything that was second-rate, and I was not willing to be associated with any semblance of mediocrity. I believed that if we made excellence our standard, success would only be a matter of time.

Despite lots of skepticism and pushback from fellow educators, friends, and even family, we marched forward with our agenda of excellence. I recall hosting a gathering of outdoor leaders and educational experts in the spring of 2009 to evaluate the school concept and its likelihood for success. I will never forget the comment of one prominent outdoor leader from a reputable and established outdoor school. At the conclusion of the meeting, he commented, “To be honest, I do not think this will work at all.”

I paused for a moment and considered the “post 2008” economic conditions in Asheville and our nation. I thought about the abundance of existing private and newly emerging charter school options in the area. I briefly wondered if I should have taken that job offer in Boston or Charlotte after all. There was definitely a moment of second guessing my decision.

But only a tiny moment. I refocused on our vision and what I knew we were capable of doing with these young men. Ultimately, I did not waver or falter at the remark. I did not lose a minute of sleep that night wondering over the infinite “what ifs” of starting a new business in the gloomiest economic hour of our time. I simply focused on not only doing “the next right thing,” but also making “the next right thing” excellent in every way possible.

In the summer of 2009, we opened the French Broad River Academy. As the end of July approached, we had yet to meet our goal of recruiting twelve students, nor had we secured a lease for a school facility. We did, however, have six families that trusted us and our mission, a donated Pontiac Montana minivan, and a lead on a quirky industrial space in a former leather tannery in the River Arts District that might serve as a school space.

We eventually secured our space, which now serves as our current Girls Campus at 191 Lyman Street, and filled our remaining six openings by October to meet our enrollment goal. Growth has been strong and steady ever since for both the Girls and Boys programs.

Future Boys and Girls Campus,191 Lyman Street in 2009

The pursuit of excellence has been and remains a cornerstone of our organizational culture.  Whether it is students performing on the stage of the Orange Peel or a Salamander’s first homestay experience in Costa Rica, we strive for excellence in all that we do. It has served us well during the start-up phase of our organization, and is what will sustain us into the future.

And whenever  the questioning or skepticism arises about our ambitious goals for the future, I think of Michelle Obama’s response for the doubters: “Excellence is the most powerful answer you can give.”

First Back-to-School Picnic in August, 2009