Woodward Academy: Top Large Workplace

Students make their way to the cafeteria for lunch at Woodward Academy in Atlanta on January 30th, 2017. Woodward is the large employer AJC Top Workplace winner. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Students make their way to the cafeteria for lunch at Woodward Academy in Atlanta on January 30th, 2017. Woodward is the large employer AJC Top Workplace winner. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

More than 2,500 companies were nominated or asked to participate in the 2017 Top Workplaces contest by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its partner, 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 25 large companies, 50 midsize companies and 75 small companies. Woodward Academy was the top large workplace. 

Students and faculty whiz around President Stuart Gulley in the foyer of the light-filled renovated Thalia N. Carlos Science Center, which re-opened in 2016 at Woodward Academy in College Park.

During a change in classes, Gulley stops a student dressed in a blue blazer and khakis, Woodward’s school uniform, and brags about his success in a recent debate competition.

“I try to practice management by walking around; so when I encounter folks, I try to not only observe the work that they’re doing, but inquire about their life and see how things have been going, or follow up with them on a particular issue or concern that they may have,” said Gulley, who became Woodward’s seventh president in 2009.

Faculty and staff can make similar boasts about the servant leadership and compassion at Atlanta’s oldest private school, which has grown to 664 employees on two campuses in College Park and Johns Creek.

Woodward Academy, which serves 2,703 children in grades Pre-K to 12, is the 2017 Top Workplaces large employers winner.

“They really do go to great efforts to keep us informed of what’s going on at the Academy, including strategic long-term plans. And they really do want to hear what we think,” Carol Cottrell said. “Woodward’s generally very people-centric anyway, but there is a genuine interest to have feedback from everybody and anybody. I always feel well-listened to, and that makes you feel valued.”

She joined Woodward in 2003 as the dining services administrator and received opportunities to grow professionally and move into her current role as director of dining services, which is a good fit for a foodie. Cottrell has introduced more international and healthy options, such as kale and quinoa, into the school’s menu.

She and her dining services staff of 43 are connected to one of the perks of working at Woodward: free lunch.

Even as the growing faculty and staff are spread out in buildings around the park-like campus, they can connect over a quick meal between classes and work duties. Others bond through free yoga classes and boot camps, which give employees like Upper School English teacher Ronda Zents a chance to exercise before classes.

“I’m continually feeling sustained, and as I bring energy to the place, it meets me and encourages that energy and best practices,” the 2015 A. Thomas Jackson Professorship Award recipient said.

» RELATED: Woodward Academy: Q&A with visual arts teacher Andy Cunningham

Col. John Woodward founded the academy in 1900 as a boarding school for boys, called Georgia Military Academy. The military program was discontinued in the 1960s; the boarding program was discontinued in 1993.

Now, Woodward strives to be a national model in college-preparatory education, by developing critical thinkers and ethical problem solvers in an inclusive community.

Through local service projects, Woodward helps the organizations such as the Atlanta Community Food Bank and Jesse Draper Boys & Girls Club. Each summer, a group of students and faculty visit its sister school in Zambia, where it contributes money, equipment and supplies, and helps build facilities such as a computer lab and medical clinic.

Woodward offers professional development opportunities to all of its employees and introduces participants to the school’s inner workings in a program called How Woodward Works. This program continues for a second year as Leadership Woodward.

Through Leadership Woodward, Cottrell discovered her personality profile and leadership style, and developed skills, such as how to manage stress. Since the program started in 2010, 112 employees have participated.

“I’ve loved it here because they’ve given me so many opportunities to grow and to move up,” she said.

Faculty and staff are encouraged to attend professional conferences and pursue advanced degrees, with Woodward contributing to the tuition.

“Woodward advocates that you push forward in your area,” visual arts teacher Andy Cunningham said.

Benefits include basic medical, dental and vision insurance, which are available on the first day of employment. Woodward also offers life insurance at 200 percent of an employee’s annual earnings, disability programs and financial planning tools. Through the retirement plan, Woodward matches 100 percent of an employee’s contribution up to 6 percent of their annual earnings. In addition, more than 160 children of employees attend Woodward and receive some form of financial aid, up to full tuition.

“Well, I think no one goes into education for the money, but you’ve got to be compensated at a reasonable-enough level with a benefits package that removes any kind of anxiety or concern you have about how you’re going to manage for your needs,” Gulley said.

If emergencies arise, employees come together. When a faculty member’s child died in 2016, colleagues contributed sick leave so she could take an extended break without losing pay, in addition to providing emotional support, Gulley said.

Zents appreciates the support that she receives as an educator in terms of embracing her ideas, giving her freedom to design her curriculum and providing time to collaborate with peers. The school has an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio.

“That servant leadership inspires me to just be independent in what I do. I don’t feel like I’m ever micromanaged or mistrusted,” Zents said.

Various committees give faculty and staff a role in decision-making in areas such as emergency planning, worker’s compensation and ways to create a more inclusive community at Woodward.

“It’s nice because you get to interact with people from lots of other departments that you might never have a chance to work with,” Cottrell said.

The administration courts and solicits employee opinions and feedback, Zents said.

“I really appreciate the feeling like we have a voice toward the mission and vision and the plan of the school,” she said.