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After Two Decades Leading Georgia-Cumberland Academy, Greg Gerard Reflects on Adventist Education


Greg Gerard obtained a BA in religion and history, along with an MA in religion, from Andrews University. He also studied at Western Michigan University, earning an MA and EdD in educational leadership. His first teaching job took place at Shenandoah Valley Academy. He went on to serve as principal at Midland Adventist Academy and Great Lakes Adventist Academy before becoming director of development at Andrews University. Later, he transitioned into the role of vice president for advancement at La Sierra University and, subsequently, Olivet College. In 2022, Gerard retired as principal of Georgia-Cumberland Academy (located between Chattanooga and Atlanta) after 20 years in the role, and 45 years working in Adventist education.

This interview has been lightly edited for length, flow, and clarity.

Question: What made you want to stay at Georgia-Cumberland Academy for two decades?

Answer: More than any other career move, it seemed to me that God set the stage and made it happen. The short version of the story involved an abrupt end to my employment [in administration at private, Christian] Olivet College [in Michigan] and a time of searching for how I should respond to God’s call for the next chapter. The sense of calling and the clear sense that God had something for me to do at GCA helped me stay over the long run.

During your time at the helm, enrollment at Georgia-Cumberland Academy increased from 216 students to 303, when many other Adventist academies were losing students. Why do you think students have been attracted to GCA?

Students and their families tell us they choose GCA because of the perceived strong spiritual life of the students and faculty, and the quality of the academic program. In many ways we have come to view the high school experience as a banquet buffet: there must be stuff on the buffet for everyone. That means every aspect of the school experience must be the best it can be.

Building a strong school requires a vision that includes the following:

– dissatisfaction with the status quo,

– ruthlessly attacking school weaknesses,

– attracting and retaining the very best teachers and staff who can build relationships with teenagers.

An unwavering commitment to our mission statement provided the context for all decision making. Our mission statement for the past 20 years has been the following:

Our mission is to equip students with the skills necessary to be successful in college and beyond while focusing on eternity. We accomplish this by fostering an educational environment of excellence where students, faculty, and staff pursue a shared goal to know Jesus as Savior and Friend, to love God and the people he brings into our lives, and to serve the Church and society.

All decisions were filtered through that perspective and that statement.

Does the academy actively market itself to potential students? How aggressively does the school recruit?

GCA is very intentional in marketing the school and recruiting students. We invest significant time, effort, and resources in attracting students and families. Choosing a school is a major decision and choosing a private school is expensive. We handle the process very carefully. The family must decide if GCA is right for them, and academy administration must decide if the potential student is a good fit for GCA.

The strongest marketing available is a current student, or parents of a student who are telling other people how much they love the school. When parents tell other parents that their children have grown spiritually—and they have noticed the difference that attending the Adventist school has made—there is no better marketing, and you cannot buy it. Almost all our initial contact with families is by word of mouth. We are constantly visiting elementary schools and churches with student groups to stimulate interest. We also work to get prospective students and their families to visit our campus.

Is the student body all Adventist Church members? Do non-Adventist students attend? 

Approximately 90% of our students are from Adventist families or families who have a link to the Adventist Church in some way. We recruit primarily among Adventist schools and churches within the Georgia-Cumberland Conference [covering the state of Georgia and parts of North Carolina and Tennessee]. We respond enthusiastically to any and all inquiries.

When you arrived as principal of Georgia-Cumberland Academy in 2002, what were your goals for the school? Did you realize those goals?

Leading up to 2002, the school had experienced significant student disciplinary problems, declining enrollment, financial duress, and the physical plant was in decline. Our initial steps were to address those issues. We started with the completion of a strategic plan. Decision making must be driven by the school strategic plan and a vision for the future. The Georgia-Cumberland Conference was supporting with generous subsidy, but subsidy and tuition alone are inadequate. We needed to fix problems and the only source of funding that would provide what was needed would be donor support.

In many ways, the future of Adventist education requires a strong philanthropic program. Over the years, we were able to build relationships with donors. We started putting that in place in 2002. With the hard work of many people, we have accomplished our goals. Between 2015 and 2020, we raised over $21 million from individuals, families, and foundations for our Continuing the Mission capital campaign, which was transformative. GCA is now entering a new capital campaign. The work of school improvement is ongoing.

How did you see the school change and evolve during your tenure?

Because we were blessed to be able to hire and retain outstanding faculty and staff, all aspects of the school program experienced growth and improvement. Academic programs and course offerings expanded and became more rigorous. New science laboratories were built. The athletic program was expanded, and school spirit grew as a result. Our spiritual life program became stronger due to expanded staffing and the introduction of a worship leadership program. Faculty and staff who focused on teaching students how to worship and lead worship helped transform the spiritual tone of the school.

What is the secret for recruiting and retaining quality teachers?

The shortage of great teachers and school leaders is one of the most challenging issues currently facing Adventist education. Working conditions and modest wages have made an education career unattractive. This is true in public and private education, but the pay levels are lower in Adventist education, making this part of the equation more problematic. Increasingly complex societal changes are resulting in increased student mental health issues, challenging behavior problems, and parents who are demanding the school solve the problems of their children that they have in part created. The combination of long, stressful hours and low wages relative to other professions has resulted in fewer people entering or staying in the profession. Many public schools are attempting to address the wage issues. A few Adventist academies are using creative methods to increase salaries for academy principals. However, in every case, Adventist educators are paid below that of public school teachers and principals. For school principals, the pay is usually less than 50 percent of public school principals. The teacher and administrator wage issue in Adventist education has received much discussion and very little action. This is in large part because some church leaders have decided that the clergy-based wage scale and our denominational structure are “sacred.” One of the great questions facing our church is whether we are willing to change to meet current needs.

In the short term, there are no secrets to addressing this challenge. Faculty need to be treated with respect and provided with the resources they need to be successful. We make every effort to make sure teachers and staff have a manageable workload and that the facilities in which they work are pleasant and functional. Principals must work to create schools that are exciting, vibrant, supportive, and Christ-centered.  

You’ve worked at many academies. What did you learn over the years?

Over the years, I’ve learned that relationships are very important. No one person can bring lasting change. It is crucial to partner with people who have skills and abilities beyond your own.

Teachers who are able to build strong positive relationships with students rarely struggle with major discipline problems and students tend to do their best when they like a teacher or staff member. When a student knows the teacher cares deeply about them, they will often work to be their best.

You also worked in tertiary education. What perspectives did you gain in the colleges that helped you at GCA?

What I brought to GCA was an understanding that private schools operate as a business. We sell a product. When people like the product, they will pay for it. In addition, when the business operates well, and the ministries are effective, people will give to support growth and improvement. There is no shortage of money. Being involved in a rather dramatic turn-around effort at Olivet College helped me understand what it takes to move an institution from surviving to thriving.

Being involved in fundraising allowed me to build relationships with successful business entrepreneurs. This gave me a glimpse of how they were able to bring about change in an organization and achieve goals. Working in higher education, I came to see how important philanthropy can be to an institution.

What will you miss now that you are retired? 

I miss the day-to-day interactions with people and being on a team that is moving forward. In many ways, I was a front-row spectator to the transforming work that teachers and fellow staff brought to young people on a daily basis.

What advice would you give to a new principal just starting out?

Don’t neglect your own spiritual health. As the spiritual leader of the campus, you cannot give what you don’t have. Lean heavy into prayer, and a strong foundation in the scriptures.

Build strong relationships with people who can make a difference in your life and in the life of the school.

Resist the temptation to move every few years. If you find a school that is a good fit, stay put and have a lasting impact. The challenges and dark days can be survived if you continue to remind yourself that what you are doing is incredibly important. Praise God that he has called you to such a wonderful opportunity!

What advice would you give to other Adventist academies who might want to know the secret of your success at GCA?

There is no secret to success in education. Any institution must have leadership that is casting a vision, planning for improvement, and removing barriers. You must be ruthlessly honest about shortfalls and aggressive in making constant improvements. In today’s economic environment, mediocrity is lethal.

Research studies and surveys dating back to the 1980s (such as the Seltzer-Daley research) have clearly demonstrated that parents and families are looking for two qualities in the Adventist schools: a strong and distinctive Adventist spiritual environment and high-quality academics. This hasn’t changed in the ensuing decades.

The future of Adventist education is a perennially hot topic. How do you predict it will change?

The organizational structure of the Adventist Church tends to work against system-wide change. Several challenges that we are currently experiencing will likely only become more difficult. The critical absence of capable teachers and strong leaders is one example. When business and industry face these issues, they can change remuneration and attempt to attract and retain the personnel they need. Church structure, by policy, does not allow this. Unless major changes take place to change the dynamics that currently work against recruiting and retaining the leadership we need, the quality of schools will decline.

Church organizational structure also works against efficiency. The North American Division does not need, and cannot afford, all the colleges and universities we operate. In addition, many of the 100+ Adventist academies are not located in a place where they can be viable. But consolidating or closing schools is very difficult, due in part to our organizational structure. Our schools only close following a long, laborious, painful death.

In addition to the personnel crisis and organizational inefficiency, cultural and societal changes are at times running headlong into church tradition and doctrine. These challenges get played out in the halls and classrooms of our schools, colleges, and universities. The deep societal, political, and cultural divide that exists is very much present in our churches and schools. At the church level, the discussions are largely theological and philosophical. In school classrooms and dormitories, these issues directly affect people and require decisions by leaders that can be life-changing, for better or worse.

How do Adventist academies need to evolve in order to stay relevant?

Private education operates with income from tuition, subsidy, and philanthropy. Philanthropy has been the weakest part of the equation for Adventist K–12 schools. Looking forward, schools that build successful development programs will thrive, and schools that don’t will struggle.

What do you think will change in the landscape of Adventist higher education?

Higher education is facing issues regarding consolidation and how to operate comprehensive universities efficiently. Church organizational structure makes change very difficult. The work currently being done by the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities seems like a hopeful step in the process of improving efficiency.

The challenges facing K–12 education are every bit as difficult in Adventist higher education. One of the differences relates to the role of regional and national accrediting bodies and the ability of higher education to meet their demands. There has long been a tension between accreditation commissions and Christian colleges and universities. The question remains whether societal changes and subsequent accreditation requirements will allow Adventist higher education to participate. The nature of a university is to test the limits of knowledge and experience. Churches find the inquisitive nature of higher education unsettling. That conflict has always existed. It seems to be more acute at this time.


Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum. 

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