Founding The Greater Dayton School — Q&A with Larry Connor and A.J. Stich
Q&A 22 March 2023
By Larry Connor and A.J. Stich
We found that there’s no shortage of need and families are willing to take a risk if it means their kids have a better chance to excel in life.
Founding Principal of The Greater Dayton School
In 2017, entrepreneur and astronaut Larry Connor set about to open a school in Dayton, OH — one that would focus on the needs and passions of the learners from the moment they arrived on campus. As The Greater Dayton School welcomes its first cohort of pre-K to 3rd-grade learners, Bobbi Macdonald sat down with Larry and the school’s founding principal A.J. Stich to talk about the process and philosophies that guided the school’s creation.
Bobbi: I am so fortunate that in 2018 I had the opportunity to join the team of people you brought together to think about what The Greater Dayton School could be. Thank you for joining us to share an update now that the school is up and running. Let’s jump right in. What are some of the philosophies that guided you during the design of The Greater Dayton School?
Larry: There was a whole team involved, and we had this vision and hope to create a space for kids to develop their total person — mentally, emotionally, physically, academically, laying the foundation for the rest of their lives. We decided to start with the youngest learners, pre-K and kindergarten, then continue through grade eight. We had a long-term vision that once they graduated in 8th grade, they would become Greater Dayton School alums. We would support them to and through college, if that’s the route they decide to take.
The end objective is to reconnect with each learner at age 27 to understand how they are doing against mile markers such as health, happiness, and success — not ones set by our definition, but by their own. We base everything we do on this long-term objective. This starts with a focus on their unique definition of success because the world’s made up of a lot of different kinds of people. We’re here to serve our students. Everything we do is kids-first and kids-centered. That’s the lens that we make every decision and every action through, and we do it on an individualized basis.
I have found in our for-profit work that when we look at people, regardless of their position, we don’t look at where they went to school and we don’t look at their GPA — we look at the person and their personality, their traits and attributes, their beliefs, and their philosophies. And, that’s how we hire people. If you’ve never done something before, and you don’t really have any background in it, that may be completely fine for us. It’s a lot more about your character, your beliefs, your standards, your ethics, your perseverance, and your determination.
Bobbi: Can you tell us about the learners and families at The Greater Dayton School?
A.J.: We’re currently pre-K through 3rd grade but will eventually be pre-K through 8th grade, serving kids from low-income backgrounds. Right now, we have about 80 learners, but when all grade levels are complete, we can accommodate 400 learners with the ability to expand to 600.
The idea is it’s a whole-child learning center, one that integrates whole-child learning with wraparound services — including medical care, mental health care, vision care and dental care — and family partnerships so families can make certain commitments. They don’t receive a full scholarship, but one that’s the equivalent of about $29,700, and families pay between $300 and $600 depending on the family, so they have some financial stake in attending.
The kids receive an excellent private school education. We have the flexibility as a private school to do things differently. We don’t teach to the test. We focus on mile markers with age 27 goals. At age 27, we want a person to be financially independent, physically healthy, mentally healthy, have a sense of morals and character, and then be in a career, not job hopping. From there, we worked backward and said, “Okay, if a learner is going to be financially independent by age 27, what do they need to be learning about finances at age four?”
If you’ve never done something before and you don’t really have any background in it, that may be completely fine for us. It’s a lot more about your character, your beliefs, your standards, your ethics, your perseverance, and your determination.
Founder of The Connor Group and The Greater Dayton School
Bobbi: Can you give us a peek into what a day is like for the learners at The Greater Dayton School?
A.J.: We provide transportation or the learners get dropped off by a guardian. From the second they step off onto the sidewalk to the moment they go through the threshold of their classroom, they’ve had five caring adults — and a very cute golden retriever named Wave — greet them. We know all the kids by name.
They have breakfast — we serve three meals a day. They’re all home-cooked meals by a chef so it’s not processed food. After breakfast, the kids start a block of learning that we call foundations, focusing on reading, writing, and math for our youngest grade levels. It doesn’t look like a traditional classroom. You don’t see a lot of whole-group instruction. You see kids working at their own pace, and it looks and feels very different. After that, they have morning fitness time.
They have lunch where we sit as a family, and they have lunch responsibilities, like setting the table and cleaning up after lunch. The chores reinforce learning about finances, careers, and responsibilities. And, in the afternoon, they go outside and play. Following that, they attend an elective class. This can be anything from tap dance to science — it’s for the learners to explore things that they are interested in.
At the end of the day, they go back to their classroom and clean up, finish their school chores, and then go home at five o’clock. The extended school day is part of their experience here.
Larry: I think we have created a culture of actions and deeds. And, it’s a group of people led by teachers. These teachers have a common set of beliefs, philosophies, and commitments. The goal is for the school community to stay true to our culture of learning.
Bobbi: Tell me a little bit about the families, how you connect with them, and the role they play in the school community.
A.J.: When we launched the admissions process, we had a goal of getting 200 applications. You know, we didn’t fully exist; there was nowhere to go see this in action. There was a big trust factor among the families. We received over 300 applications for just 80 spots.
We found that there’s no shortage of need, and families are willing to take a risk if it means their kids have a better chance to excel in life. We’re spending two to three times more per pupil than a conventional public school district that serves kids from low-income backgrounds. And, it’s a big difference. These families are willing to take a risk because they know that the alternative is unfortunately not a good bet in all circumstances.
Bobbi: What are your greatest hopes for the children and families of The Greater Dayton School?
A.J.: My hope is that as many learners as possible can reach their age 27 goals and lead a very fulfilling and rewarding life.
Larry: First, I hope the learners can positively alter — by their own definition — the trajectory of their lives.
Second, I hope that this can become a model. I hope we can show that you can really do this, and it can make a transformative difference. We will hopefully have people coming from other parts of the country, and we’ll be open architecture to show them everything we’re doing and how we’re doing it. We’ll try to help other people. And, hopefully, it becomes a multiplier effect where you start to see more of these schools and a deeper national discussion, rather than just a Greater Dayton discussion.
A.J.: And, if our message and philosophies resonate with anyone across the country, I welcome you to have a conversation with me. We are always looking for more educators who believe in and fully embody this whole-child mindset.
To learn more about The Greater Dayton School or to inquire about job opportunities, please visit their website or contact A.J. at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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