Episcopal Day School: 1970-1987

Rooted in small student-teacher ratios, fine arts, and a unique understanding of how students best receive instruction, Episcopal Day School was founded on the idea that a quality education is one that addresses each student as an individual. By no means a large operation from the beginning, EDS originated with only a handful of parents, whose approach to education was revolutionary at the time. Today, University School of Jackson fosters many of these same ideals in its academic programs.

In September of 1970, Episcopal Day School opened its doors at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church to 17 students in five grades. It was joked that the first board of trustees could have met in a phone booth. The school may have started small, but the leadership involved had lofty goals. One grade each year would be added up to the ninth grade. At the time, EDS had no plans on having a high school. Emphasis was placed on primary education.

EDS leaders pose in front of the EDS
"Pleasant Plains" campus. This photo appeared
in "The Jackson Sun" in the early 1970s.

With a strong core group of leaders, Episcopal Day School quickly developed, and the determination to keep a dream alive of providing a well-rounded, culture-based education in Jackson began. Steve Switzer was recruited as the first headmaster with a salary of $12,500. Switzer’s faculty members were hired without contracts for the first year. Uncertainty, faith, and determination defined EDS’s first year of operation.

In the few years leading up to the opening of EDS, parents made many decisions on the direction of the school. Though the school was called “Episcopal Day School,” teaching was not entirely faith-based. While Christian values played a role in the foundation of the school, the school was not an Episcopalian institution at all. Instead, parents relied more on the support of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which also was interested in fostering independent education in Jackson.

Parents hoped that this dynamic relationship could benefit their school in a number of ways. Episcopal schools around the country had a reputation from which EDS could draw. Episcopal schools had a core set of values on which EDS could rely. However, EDS leadership did not want to alienate any faith. An early decision was made that while Episcopal Day School would be associated with the Episcopal Church by name, it would not be run through the church administration.

This open relationship that EDS was able to forge with St. Luke’s was invaluable. A key component of the educational programming came through St. Luke’s rector, Paul Walker, who had previous experience in education. His guidance helped the board find necessary faculty and helped define EDS’s earliest academic programs.

EDS religious director and
rector of St. Luke's Church,
Paul Shields Walker.

Episcopal Day School adopted the gryphon as its mascot. The gryphon is a steadfast English symbol with mythical qualities. Having the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle, and a back covered with feathers, the gryphon was a statement of strength rooted in regality. EDS began a series of many further decisions and transitions that would little by little help develop its identity.

During the first year, as students were taking classes at St. Luke’s Church, parents were looking for a long-term solution for a building EDS could call its own. In the early months of 1971, they found their structure on Old Humboldt Road. The “Pleasant Plains” campus, as it was called then, had recently become vacant due to public school integration. For $35,000, Episcopal Day School had its home. Parents signed their names on the bank note to finance the school, and St. Luke’s once again provided its support with $5,000 of seed money to aid the new school.

Parents joined their efforts to repair the school that had just been purchased from the county. EDS relied on labor and donations for a majority of the necessary upgrades. The Duck family, for example, donated carpet, the Townsends donated lighting, and all of the families involved helped to clean and paint their new school. EDS could afford items such as paint, but could not afford to hire professional painters for the labor.

Some recall one “feisty” woman who boarded a tractor and bush hogged an entire field alone. EDS was formed on single actions such as the mother on the tractor. Every parent took responsibility for the welfare of the physical structure of the school and the academics within it.

That winter, the entire student body rode in a float shaped as a giant red sleigh in the Jackson Downtown Christmas Parade. With room to spare on the enormous float, everyone wore red caps and sang Silent Night in French through the entire parade.

EDS students rode on a float constructed by parent
Ann Avent in the Jackson Downtown Christmas Parade.

To help raise funds during that first year, EDS mothers Jo Lewis and Betsy Cox held the first Episcopal Day School Antique Show and Sale in the spring of 1971. Housed in the Lambuth gym, the successful event was marked by a few mishaps along the way. A miscommunication with the security hired for the event forced fathers to sit watch over the antiques at the gym overnight, guns in hand. Cox readily admits “that a lot of this was done by the seat of our pants.” The event cost $2,000, but raised $5,000 and provided a much-needed source of revenue for the school.

In the following years, EDS continued to make improvements on the physical structure while growing its student body. In its second year, EDS implemented a progressive and controversial academic curriculum. An adapted form of the Montessori program was pushed for by Headmaster Switzer and a group of mothers. The Montessori program provided a degree of freedom in education that was revolutionary at the time. Three- and four-year-olds were taught French and Spanish. Third and fourth graders rotated classrooms for different subjects. Students were allowed to read ahead while others were given assistance when needed. Essentially, every child was taught at his or her own pace so each student could excel according to his or her own ability. Today, USJ still uses this developmental approach in its Lower School.

In the first few years, the board of trustees struggled to obtain land around its new campus that could be used for athletics and other recreational events. A deal was struck with the Dodson family who owned land on the opposite side of the Pleasant Plains MB Church. The family allowed EDS to use the field, but would not sell the school the land. The school’s first home soccer game was played there. EDS largely played teams from Nashville and Memphis because few other West Tennessee schools had soccer programs.

PAL league basketball in the EDS gymnasium

EDS parents helped pioneer a youth athletic program called the PAL league. Basketball and soccer were played against other schools in the area, such as St. Mary’s and Old Hickory. Today, hundreds of students still participate in the league every year.

In 1974, with little money, Episcopal Day School expanded its existing structure and added a gym to its campus. Now the school could host events of its own, as well as have home basketball games. At the time, children dressed for gym class in the furnace room.

Structures, however, didn’t define the school in the early years. The dedication of faculty and staff saw to the success of EDS. Bobby Carter volunteered as the boys’ basketball coach. Lou Shelton coached the girls. Tommy Scott taught theater and was known to show up for class in full costume. Dick Bradley was the social studies and history teacher, who pushed his students to think innovatively. Even the much-loved janitor, Earnest Porter, made his impression on the children of Episcopal Day School.

EDS longtime secretary
Diana Kline

EDS provided an environment that allowed its faculty members to teach as they saw best. Children were able to participate in everything from sports to theatrical performances. Every child was given an opportunity for success with the school’s low enrollment. While the small number of students had distinctive benefits, the size of the school was always a pressing issue with EDS leadership.

EDS continued to grow, but financially struggled. Some issues the board of trustees dealt with at the time helped define the state of the school. The smallest decisions became major because of finances. At one point, the school lawnmower broke down. Should the school try to repair it or finance a new one? Afternoon sun was streaming into the classrooms and distracting students. Could the school even afford to install blinds? What kind? How will they be paid for? Answers were always found, and the school continued its slow growth. While finances strained the school in its earliest years, its many other successes would help shape and attract the student body Episcopal Day School sought.

Montessori teachers Anna Clifford, Donna Sampson, Elaine Humphreys,
Belinda Bonner, Rhonda Porter, Retta Spring, Judy Pace, and Jean McWilliams
stand on the bridge kindergarten students "passed over" to graduate to first grade.
This was the last preschool graduation ceremony before consolidation with OHA.