The Woodward Academy Adult Choir practices in the school's chapel in College Park on January 24th, 2019. For AJC Top Workplaces story. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

Woodward Academy: Top Large Workplace 

Private school continues to hit all the right notes

More than 4,300 companies were nominated or asked to participate in the 2019 Top Workplaces contest by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its partner, Energage (formerly Workplace Dynamics). Employees across the metro area responded to print and online solicitations that began appearing in September. 

Using survey results, a list of 150 workplaces was compiled, consisting of 20 large companies (500 or more employees), 55 midsize companies (150-499 employees) and 75 small companies (149 or fewer employees). 

Woodward Academy’s new faculty choir has something to sing about. 

The private school is once again Atlanta’s top-ranked large company. It has been ranked first or second every year since The AJC’s Top Workplaces began.

With campuses in College Park and Johns Creek, Woodward Academy’s faculty teaches 2,635 students in grades pre-K through 12. 

Read more about the AJC’s 2019 Top Workplaces here.

The choir joins an vast list of ways Woodward’s more than 650 employees bond when not in the classroom. The school also offers cooking and art classes, yoga, and boot camps.

That sense of community is why some students return to Atlanta’s oldest prep school as teachers.

“Woodward gave me the tools in so many ways to be successful in life,” said David-Aaron Roth, who graduated from Woodward in 2010. “There’s a ton of alums who work at this school. It’s because we value the home and the community that is created here not only as a student but then as a faculty member.”

Roth joined the faculty full time in the 2016-2017 school year and is an Upper School English teacher and service learning coordinator.

And although third-grade teacher Amber French didn’t attend Woodward, her siblings did. She would attend events at the school with them.

“Something told me that that was a special place to be,” she said. “I said, ‘One day I’m going to be part of that community.’

French started as a permanent substitute teacher, to get her foot in the door, and is now in her fifth year of teaching at Woodward.

» These are the top 20 large workplace winners for 2019

Leading the way

Employees say administrators at Woodward are approachable and supportive, which school president Stuart Gulley encourages.

Gulley tells faculty and staff they can approach him if they have any questions, concerns or comments. And they take him up on it.

One employee, who works with the evening household staff, told Gulley that he and his co-workers were never mentioned among staff who make a difference at the school. Gulley realized the man was right and thanked him for being honest.

“This was a way of him helping me grow as a leader and understanding the full scope of what it takes on the part of everyone here to make this a healthy and aesthetically pleasing community,” Gulley said. “For someone to feel like when they see me out on campus and to walk up to me and to offer a comment, that is the kind of community I hope I’m fostering here and I hope that Woodward stands for.”

Woodward also encourages its teachers to pursue professional development and training opportunities. For example, French attended a National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference in California.

“I grew as an educator, and actually, as a person, because it helped me see things differently,” she said.

Collaboration and conversation

The STL (Summit for Transformative Learning) in ATL conference brings in top-rated speakers, Gulley said, and and provides an intentional professional development opportunity for Woodward teachers and instructional aides.

“We feel like this has been a real benefit for our employees in that they appreciate that it’s something that is local, that the topics are relevant, that they have between sessions to debrief with their colleagues on what they’re learning,” Gulley said.

Roth, who is paired with a faculty mentor, said he seeks advice on classroom strategies and student engagement from teachers in other departments.

“I believe that the people who work at this school are the experts in their field,” he said.

Employees also praise the small class sizes and resources to spend on supplies as ways the school helps them maintain a work-life balance.

French has a teacher’s assistant who helps with lesson planning, grading and sending emails, which frees up time for French to spend with her children.

“Because of her, I’m able to be mom outside of school,” she said.

The high school faculty is three years into a major change in its daily schedule. Instead of one planning period per day, they now have two. Also, Gulley said, teachers have more opportunities to collaborate with peers because every nine days is a late start day for high school students.

“The idea was to try to make the day less frenetic for our students as well as for our teachers,” Gulley said. “We have attempted for our employees to provide a schedule that has been responsive to concerns that we heard about the freneticism of the day.”

Keeping it up

Woodward’s benefits begin on an employee’s first day. They range from medical insurance with a low deductible and no co-insurance plans, to short- and long-term disability and flex spending accounts. Employees can save for retirement using a 403(b) plan through TIAA, and after one year, Woodward matches 100 percent of an employee’s contribution up to 6 percent of their annual earnings. Free lunch, including options for dietary preferences and restrictions, is served daily.

“You are being supported. You are being fed,” Roth said. “And you are feeling that this is your family and this is your home.”

It’s a home two employees have been in for 42 years. Since new hires could work at Woodward for decades, Gulley said, the school conducts a thorough and rigorous review of prospective candidates. During an on-campus interview, the candidate meets a broad base of people, and teachers are asked to lead a class and interact with the students.

“We are all very fortunate to be a part of one of Atlanta’s longstanding institutions, now 119 years old. We’ve been given a significant gift in trying to continue the legacy of this place,” Gulley said. “In doing it, we really believe that we represent Atlanta at its best here.”

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