Gerstell Academy Founder Dr. Frederick G. Smith had a novel idea in 1996.
He envisioned a school in which all practical knowledge and critical thinking could be filtered through an overarching lens: how to be a good leader.
And students took to that idea.
Although it has great teachers, staff and students, alumni say the standout is definitely the school’s unique education model which is centered in leadership principles and attributes applied to curriculum from pre-K to grade 12.
Those tenets have become interwoven in student lives and careers since Gerstell’s first graduating class walked across the stage in 2012.
When the academy started with seven kindergarten students in 2002, it was too early to tell if Smith’s grand experiment would be sustainable.
Now, 45 seniors are celebrating the end of the school’s 25th anniversary year as they receive their high school diplomas on Saturday, June 4.
The school community reflects on this milestone anniversary.
Growing the Leaders of Tomorrow
Beth Hand, director of development and alumni relations and assistant director of college guidance for the school, has been at Gerstell for 17 of those 25 years.
“Good to see it growing and thriving,” she says of the school, noting that she’s watched students go from pre-K and kindergarten to now running their own businesses.
Relationships with teachers, a tight-knit student community and the learning model that Gerstell is known for have fostered these opportunities.
Taylor Hodges, a 2017 graduate, says the school’s leadership attributes—which draw on character traits such as courage, humility and respect—are such an intrinsic part of how he approaches life now.
“It’s those core values that I might not have realized at the time were so important. What fifth grader or middle schooler is going to fully comprehend that?” he says.
Adam Lovellette graduated a year later and says he still remembers each set of 10—both principles and attributes. He plans to use them in college and daily at work.
“The values that are instilled … I feel like are just really universal for most events and most people in life,” he adds.
A visit in October from theater arts teacher Nan Kaestner’s brother-in-law proved that in a big way.
Peter Kaestner explained to middle school students how he applied principles such as “be courageous in the face of adversity” and attributes such as “perseverance” and “action” when he calmed the pilot of a famous flight re-routed during 9/11.
Any time the school can share a firsthand account with students, “it brings relevance to what we’re teaching and impacts students on a greater level,” says Carey Wargo, head of the middle school, at the time.
Hand says leadership curriculum is woven into all lower school classes, which include group work, peer evaluations and large group presentations to parent forums that expose students to public speaking.
Older students get additional leadership classes, with a different focus each year.
More than 185 portraits of inventors, politicians, scientists, explorers, athletes, artists and humanitarians hang in the halls to inspire students at every age. They study their biographies and leadership styles of as part of their academic curricula.
Apart from their classes, students also get to exercise responsibility in starting their own clubs.
“If they have an interest in something, they need to write a proposal and then meet with administration and talk to them about what the organization would be, how it would work, what the structure would be,” Hand says.
Maggie Smist, who graduated from the Class of 2016, recalls how she saw Gerstell’s leadership attributes applied schoolwide as well.
“A standout moment I had while attending Gerstell Academy was an Earth Day a few years back,” she says.
The whole school teamed up for a field trip at a farm or park to clean up trash, put in new plants, do yard work and build bird feeders. Their work exemplified attribute 10: “Humble yourself before Almighty God and respect the Divine Nature of life in the universe,” she explains.
How much students are able to get out of the leadership model might depend on how long they stay, but Hand found that once students came to Gerstell, they tended to be there for the long haul.
Part of that is owed to its community.
Lovelette says he looks back on his time in appreciation of the relationships that he was able to grow in a small community.
Having small class sizes also allows for more individual mentorship and relationships with teachers.
Hodges says he loves American history, but that probably wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t for Mr. Stephen Olszewski.
“He was very humorous, but in a very stern way,” Hodges recalls. “He knew how to help a student grow—how to push a student to reach their fullest potential. He had a remarkable way of getting, I think, the best out of every single student.”
Smist says she was always impressed by how faculty and staff would welcome students.
“Something I remember most was an act of kindness that was done each and every day—being welcomed by Ms. Louque, Dr. Smith and our principal every morning at carpool,” she says.
“We would be greeted with a simple handshake and smile,” she adds, and they would take care to ask about their lives.
That kind of familiarity even extends to the school’s founder.
Because Smith lives in Lutherville, Hand says, he’s able to be actively involved on campus, and students get the rare treat of not only a living founder, but one who’s so giving with his time.
“He talks about everything,” she says. “He talks about how things are going on campus, how things are going in their personal life, how things are looking for the future ….”
A new 10,000-square-foot alumni house that opened in 2019 ensures school will be a place to continue to foster relationships for years to come—especially larger events like reunions.
“Some students have been here for 15 years, so it’s a large chunk of their life,” Hand says. “We are family.”
From parent associations, donors, workers, retirees who come back to help and closely-linked families, she says, “We feel like we are a community in and of (ourselves).”
To learn more about Gerstell Academy, register for the school’s next open house on Tuesday, June 21.