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VOL. 127 | NO. 89 | Monday, May 07, 2012

Taylor Dedicated to Enriching Lives Of St. George’s Independent Students

By ERINN FIGG

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When the people who know and work with Bill Taylor speak of him, they describe the president of St. George’s Independent School in a variety of ways.

St. George’s president Bill Taylor helped launch the school’s middle and upper schools. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Colleagues say he’s a hard-working man of character. Parents of some of the school’s students refer to him as a motivating and supportive educator. But despite the different contexts of their relationships, there’s one quality they all emphasize: He’s not one to back away from a challenge.

“With Bill, the bottom line is to help students to be good citizens, and he is dedicated to pushing that mission forward,” said Rick Ferguson, former president and current student ambassador for St. George’s. “He came here from New York because of that mission, and it was not without risk.”

When Taylor arrived in Memphis in 2001, the small independent school was headed down a path toward a very ambitious vision for the future.

Founded in 1959 by parishioners of St. George’s Episcopal Church, the private, coeducational elementary school in Germantown served students from primarily affluent backgrounds for 40 years.

Then in 1999, big things started happening. The school kicked off its plans to expand with a Collierville campus for middle and high school students.

That same year, in an effort to bridge racial and economic differences in the Mid-South, anonymous donors gave school officials $6 million to create an elementary school in Memphis that would, through lower tuition rates and scholarships, offer St. George’s progressive academic program to students from lower-income families.

As a result, students graduating from both the Germantown and Memphis campuses would eventually integrate in the new Collierville middle/high school, ultimately making it one of the most diverse private high schools in the region.

Enter Taylor, who initially was appointed to ensure the successful launch of St. George’s middle and upper school divisions and head the Collierville campus, which opened in August 2002.

“The school was looking for strong leadership for the middle and upper school, and that’s what we found in Bill,” said Sarah Cowan, the school’s director of communications. “As you can imagine, it was a huge challenge – he was responsible for overseeing construction of the Collierville campus, building the curriculum, and establishing arts and athletic programs, among many other responsibilities.”

While school officials were enthusiastic about bringing in Taylor, who previously had served as assistant headmaster of Trinity Pawling Episcopal School in New York for 13 years, some parents had their doubts at first.

“At the time, my husband and I were uncertain about choosing St. George’s for a high school,” said Susan Schaefer, who has a daughter that currently is a senior at St. George’s and a son who is a 2008 graduate. “Many parents were worried that our kids would go through that first graduation and not get into colleges because St. George’s had only been around for one year. Everything was a leap of faith.”

It’s a fitting description, considering that for a brief time Taylor aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an Episcopal priest. In 1985, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College in Ohio before entering the Episcopal seminary at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

Then he took his own leap of faith and changed course.

“I felt called to do something in the capacity of helping other people, but I wasn’t certain I wanted to become a priest,” Taylor said. “It was during that first year of seminary that I decided teaching was the direction I wanted to go.”

After graduating from Yale in 1988 with a Master of Arts in religion, Taylor said he still approached teaching with the same ideals of servitude and spiritual growth that were fostered in seminary.

“It starts with a healthy amount of respect for young people and respect for the journey of self-discovery,” said Taylor, who, with his wife, Jennifer, has a son, Wilson, 24, and a daughter, Allyson, 20. “It’s about honoring the gift of human reason and intellect through hard work. I always cringe when I hear teachers talk about instilling this or that in students, as if they’re empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.”

He said coming to Memphis has played a key role in his own such journey.

“There were two compelling factors that led me here – one was the opportunity to be a part of something new, and also there was the opportunity to be part of a journey of showing how diversity can enrich a community, and how education can be the driving force of that enrichment, and of how the lives and futures of schools can be transformed through greater diversity,” Taylor said. “When I saw that opportunity here, I thought, ‘I need to be a part of this.’”

Taylor, who still teaches American history, became president of St. George’s in 2006. Among the accomplishments of which he is most proud is the collaborative work he and his colleagues did to build a middle and upper school “out of nothing” – a school that is now nationally acclaimed for its distinctive academic programs and whose dedication to cultural diversity has been profiled in The New York Times.

But that accomplishment, he said, is also his biggest challenge.

“We do not have a long track record as a pre-K through grade 12 school,” Taylor said. “We’ve only had seven graduating classes so far. How do we take what we’ve created and make it sustainable? It remains a rewarding experience to pursue that challenge.”

Schaefer isn’t worried.

“Bill Taylor works tirelessly to make the school a better place. He demands excellence from his students, faculty and staff, and it shows,” she said. “Both of my children have flourished at St. George’s because they knew they were worth something there. He taught them that every student has his or her own special gift.”

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