It's 2:45 p.m., and a flurry of St. Mary's Episcopal Day School students are shuffling to pickup stations on the car line.
Headmaster Scott Laird is in constant motion on the sidewalk — smiling, waiving and delivering well wishes as he ushers kids into their cars.
Bye John. Bye Lucas … Got much homework tonight? … Hey Matthew. Boy you're getting tall. Hey Andrew. How are you? Where's Maggie? … What are you going to do for Easter?
When it comes to creating a welcoming, nurturing atmosphere, Laird — and the entire St. Mary's staff — must be doing something right.
For three years in a row, St. Mary's topped all comers to secure the top ranking in the small-size category for the Tampa Bay Times' Top Workplaces. It's a feat no other company in any of the other size categories has matched.
Ask teachers and staffers why St. Mary's is special and the same word surfaces repeatedly: family. Like a family, they look out for each other. Like a family, they enjoy having fun together. From surprise class trips to a theme park to weekly trivia games to Field Day events during Spirit Week.
In striving to keep employees motivated and happy, it helps to start with strong compensation and benefits. It helps to give teachers a high degree of autonomy.
It also doesn't hurt to have a well-capitalized endowment fund that's frequently tapped to fund teachers' advanced degrees and send them to training all around the world. Ask the performing arts teacher who attended a workshop on Broadway, the science teachers that went to the Grand Canyon or the art teacher who enjoyed a subsidized trip to France.
Laird, now in his 16th year at the pre-K through eighth-grade school, says the key is everyone buying into the same mission, namely that the kids come first. "Everything flows from there," he said.
Laird, 55, shared his thoughts on what makes a workplace consistently come out on top.
How many students do you have?
So how do you remember all their names?
It's not just me. Every adult here knows every child by name.
To me, that defines the perfect size because I can know every single child in the school. Studies are showing now that school size is even more important than class size in determining student success. It's about being a community. It's about children being accountable to everyone and being known by everyone. I think that's really the magic formula of St. Mary's.
Aside from school size, what are other secrets of your success?
I really don't think it's my success as much as our success. It's really about balance. Everyone here is committed to that … Our faculty is about balance. They know the math lesson is important but when the children leave in 10 minutes to go to music, that's just as important.
What guidelines do you follow?
We have a mission statement. Our motto is Learn. Love. Lead. Inspiring curiosity and kindness in a Christian caring community. Everyone helped build that mission statement so they all buy into it. That's the big picture answer.
On a small scale, it's about balance, and we work hard to make sure (employees) are well-compensated. Our benefits program is robust. As important as compensation benefits, we have a fund for professional development (the Sigety Fund) that we use to encourage teachers to go back to graduate school, to get their advanced degree and get more training.
What's the origin of the Sigety Fund and how has it grown?
I'll be honest with you. Like most good things in education, you steal a good idea. This is a reshaping of an idea I had at a previous school I was associated with. My first summer here I met with a parent named Birge Sigety and he and his wife, Beth, wanted to do something for the school. I suggested they help me found an endowment.
What was started as a $20,000 fund is now close to $300,000. We're pretty much using the interest off the fund to do the things we want to do.
The fund makes a big difference when I'm trying to hire a great, young teacher and I know I'm competing with another school. I can look them in the eye and say, "We'll pay for your advanced degree, including textbooks." I bet I could count 10, 15 members of the faculty who have obtained advanced degrees through that.
It's also used for professional development.
How much outside training do you fund?
To me it seems like a regular event. Any given month we'll have a group of three teachers going to Orlando; a group of teachers going to Seattle. … It's pretty regular. ... We have some loose guidelines, but it's really about, "How will this benefit our students?"
Can you elaborate on teacher benefits, particularly for retirement?
Our retirement program is competitively robust, I would say. Teachers are vested immediately and they get 5 percent (of their salary) toward their TIAA–CREF account. We reward longevity. So at year six, you get six percent; at year 11, you get seven percent; and at year 16, you get 8 percent.
What teacher benefits are there beyond compensation?
I get a lot of resumes from people who have heard about St. Mary's and want to come as a quality of life decision. It's really not about benefits and compensation as much as it is being able to practice your craft.
One of the greatest benefits that is understated about independent schools as a rule is that our teachers have autonomy in the classroom. They can experiment. Education is not about succeeding all the time. It's about failing and trying something that could work beautifully or could fall flat. …
Division heads are watching closely and supervising instruction. But you have got to let your teachers have some freedom.
Has that freedom led to some interesting innovation here?
It's mostly about delivery systems. I have a seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher who reads to her children in the voice of the characters of the book. That just brings the books to life. That's just one example, but it is about delivery systems often. You could be a very good English teacher and teach that novel a different way. There's no right or wrong. It's letting them do it the way it works for them.
So they're not necessarily "teaching to the test" (to encourage higher standardized scores)?
Yes, and I know what you're talking about. That is a huge factor in people coming to St. Mary's.
All your teachers have laptops or desktop computers. They all have interactive SmartBoards and many have SmartSlates and Elmo document cameras. There are computer labs and a video production studio. How important is technology to your mission?
I've heard technology described as the gift that keeps on taking. It's like a bottomless well. But it's all good stuff. It helps our students be better students. It streamlines education; it accelerates education. In terms of funding, we have an annual giving campaign where the parents support the school and over the past several years they have committed 45 percent to technology.
A lot of your alumni come back here to work.
They do. I think that's a Tampa phenomenon and other schools experience the same thing. Tampa is a place where kids go off to colleges or universities and then off to New York or Chicago to start a career. But they seem to come home to raise their family. We have an inordinate number of alumni parents — probably more than 10 percent which is very unusual.
Do you have a wait list for students?
We call it a wait pool. A wait list implies ranked order whereas a pool implies everyone is in together which is the reality. It's mostly in our younger grades.
Amid the tough economy, some private schools are reporting lower enrollment. How have you been affected?
Our applications dropped. But we were very pro-active. The board and I designed some strategies to deal with the economy when we first realized what was happening. . . . Our strategy was to keep families here. So if we needed to see some families through challenging times, we were prepared to do that knowing they were going to become full-paying customers once again. That's proven to be very successful.
What are some unusual activities you have on campus?
We have some nice traditions here. We do some special things around the holidays for sure. We have the pre-K come over to our home for Christmas cookies. I read Christmas stories. It's getting harder and harder emotionally. I really struggle to keep it together with all the beautiful little people there. And one evening during Christmas, we have the entire eighth-grade come in for a formal, sit-down dinner at the home followed by a very spirited gift exchange, a Yankee Swap kind of format. The kids absolutely love it.
We also have mystery trips for the eighth-graders a couple times during the year. They don't know where they're going and we surprise them. Some other traditions: We have lightning trivia on the morning show on Friday mornings. The eighth-graders compete and answer some trivia questions. We have John A. Shepard Field Day, which is named for a former headmaster. We have a Spirit Week based around that whole event.
What about sports?
Very, very robust. It's an important part of our program. Sports is about participation. In the middle school there is a competitive side to it. We call it the gold varsity level and they compete in tournaments. It's really about building life skills, life appreciation. Many of our children may be going to schools where this is their last chance to play competitive team sports.
Here, we have a no-cut policy. Everybody plays at some level.
Any lessons learned during your tenure? Ways you've evolved?
I like to think I'm more patient today than maybe I was 10 years ago. That serves me well. Knowing that tomorrow there's always a tomorrow.
I remind my teachers all the time … when you're dealing with families, it's not business. It's a lot about emotion. You have to understand when people are talking about their children, they're talking about their most precious commodity. You can't measure it in terms of value. You need to help parents sort through that sometimes and try to do what's best for the child. It's not always easy.
There's also a spiritual undercurrent here?
There is. A lot of people come to St. Mary's for that. It's nice to be able to quote Scripture when you're dealing with disciplinary situations or supporting a family through a crisis. We're pretty similar to most Episcopal schools in that we have chapel twice a week. We begin every day with prayer and blessings before a meal or gathering.
How does that spirituality come into play with community outreach?
We've designed a community service program where every grade level has a ministry if you will. Sometimes they'll change. But we have a couple where certain grades have held on to them for over a decade and they're kind of identified with that grade level. Everything from Metropolitan Ministries to Meals on Wheels. One of our lower grades works with Kids for Canines. … It's really important that our children understand not only how blessed they are — because for many of them, their lives are so rich and so full — but the need to give to other people and do for others.