November 22, 2021
Matt Walsh Forges a New Path
Matt Walsh marvels at the picturesque campus that Glenelg Country School is blessed to call home. Each day provides new inspiration for Walsh, Glenelg’s tenth head of school, as he explores the winding paths and wooded surroundings that provide the backdrop for the school’s integrative learning model.
“It’s really hard to describe how pretty it is here,” Walsh said, the autumn sun beaming through the towering trees outside his office window while he spoke. “When you’re outdoors in this beautiful place, you have an opportunity to explore the natural environment while you’re learning about art, literature, or science.”
In March 2021, the Glenelg Board of Trustees unanimously selected Walsh to succeed former Head of School Greg Ventre, who retired in June. He previously served as president and head of school at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“Matt’s experience and expertise as an independent school head make him an excellent choice for the job,” said Bradley Smith, board chair, in announcing Walsh’s selection. “His intelligence, integrity, energy, transparent communication style, demeanor, and collaborative nature, and warm and caring demeanor make Matt a great fit for our GCS community.”
Reflecting on the school’s founding in 1954 and its history, Walsh recognized the importance that founder Kingdon Gould and the founding families placed on the philosophy that all things are connected. Emphasizing personal relationships, offering strong academic fine arts and athletics programs, and interweaving various fields of study have always been important at GCS. Walsh expects to continue and strengthen that legacy. “The environment here encourages reflective thinking and not just absorbing information,” he explains. “There’s just something really contemplative about this environment that encourages our students to think about other disciplines and fields of endeavor, and how one thing might be related to another, and I think that’s really important.”
Settling into the Head’s House located near the entrance on campus has been a homecoming of sorts. Walsh, who graduated from Georgetown University in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in French and a minor in English, has a brother who works for the EPA in Washington, DC. With the ease of someone happy to be back in the region, Walsh also appreciates the opportunity to be closer to his mother, who lives in their hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut.
Joining Matt Walsh are his wife, Janet, and their three children, Ashling, Ayla, and John. The couple’s youngest daughter, Ayla, is a ninth-grader in the Upper School, while John is in the eighth grade in the Middle School, and Ashling is a sophomore at Middlebury College.
As a GCS parent, Walsh will have a rare look at the school from the inside out. Seeing the communication between parents and teachers in real-time is beneficial as a head of school, Walsh notes, and he encourages his children’s teachers to share both good and not-so-great news with him. Because he was a teacher for 12 years and rose through the ranks to head of school, Walsh hopes faculty know that he understands their job as well.
“I have always found it helpful to have kids in the school, both from my perspective [as head of school] and the faculty and parents’ perspectives too, because we are on the same journey with them,” said Walsh.
Walsh stresses that education, particularly in independent schools, is a partnership between the family and the school, working together in the child’s best interests, whether that’s his child or another student. “Our approach is going to be that we’re also parents here, and we want to share in the educational experience of our kids and help them grow and develop,” said Walsh. “That’s my desire for all of our students here.”
The Road to GCS
While his collegiate education began on the campus of Georgetown, Walsh’s journey to GCS includes the international. Given his propensity for languages, this isn’t a surprise. He studied abroad in Madrid, Spain, and earned a master’s in Spanish Language and Literature from Middlebury College in Connecticut.
The 2021–2022 school year marks Matt Walsh’s 31st year as an educator. His entire career in education has been with independent schools. Fluent in French and Spanish, Walsh’s first job after college was as a language teacher at a boarding school in Rhode Island. He spent the past 15 years as head of schools in the Southeast, starting at a small-town K–12 school with 230 children in Georgia and then moving to Pulaski Academy, a co-ed, Pre-K–12 school with 1,250 students, 190 employees, and an $18 million budget.
At the helm of such a large school for nearly a decade, Walsh sought the GCS position because he was looking for a new challenge. “GCS was attractive to me because I was really looking for something new,” he admits. “I’d been at Pulaski Academy for a long time, so it was time for a change.”
When he visited the GCS campus for his interview, Walsh was reminded of that first school—a warm, intimate campus.
“The first thing that came across in all my encounters with people here was the love they have for the school and for each other,” Walsh said. “The relationships and the closeness were very appealing to me, and it brought me back to my roots.”
Roots, explains Walsh, firmly established in the warmth, diversity, and inclusivity of its culture. He was impressed by the school’s 50 percent racial diversity ratio, while most independent schools have a little more than 20 percent diversity. This aspect of the GCS community excites Walsh about the vast potential of a GCS education.
“Social-emotional learning is not just about the subject matter,” Walsh explains. “It’s also about students learning how to be empathetic and to appreciate people from their different backgrounds.” The challenge, Walsh believes, is meeting students where they are socially and emotionally and raising them to the next level. “Once they leave here, they aren’t just academically prepared, but they are also prepared for the world.”
The GCS community and its embrace of diversity are aspects that students and families who choose the school appreciate. But, like many Dragons, that wasn’t the only draw to Glenelg Country School. The natural setting of the 90-acre campus is a peaceful enclave in an unassuming location, and it immediately captured Walsh’s attention.
“When I came to GCS, I just thought, ‘Wow, this is a unique place,’” marvels Walsh. “There are places here on the grounds where you have that space where you can go and be creative. This is a very peaceful, serene environment for us to concentrate on our work and come together as a community.”
Part of the school’s unique setting is its proximity to Washington, DC, and the wealth of resources within reach. Walsh said that it’s not just about monetary donations but access to connections in the community within and outside of the school that can enrich the student experience at GCS. Before the first day of school, Walsh had already met parents who work for NASA, the National Weather Service, and other agencies within the DC work ecosystem.
The Journey Forward
It has been a whirlwind first year for Walsh since arriving on campus. Officially starting his tenure on July 1, 2021, Walsh visited campus in the spring to get a jump on acclimating to his new school. He met with faculty and staff during a listening tour. He asked what they liked about the school, what they would change if they could, and what GCS needed in a head of school. Relationships, community building, and clarifying and articulating GCS’ mission, vision, and identity were common themes woven throughout Walsh’s conversations.
The spring meetings were helpful to Walsh, as the need to improve internal communication and operating procedures was another common thread. Strengthening connections, collaboration, and bringing the divisions together around common objectives will be one of Walsh’s goals.
“It’s important that I invest time getting to know people and identifying things we have in common as shared goals, which are always more numerous than the things we disagree about,” Walsh said. “Of course, there will be disagreements, but it’s beneficial if you’ve established a rapport because that leads to trust.”
Walsh expects to be equally visible throughout the school year, attending games and other after-school activities. Without hesitation, he admits that the most productive meetings are often informal conversations with a student, parent, or colleague outside of the classroom.
Walsh sees opportunities to make a difference during his tenure at GCS and plans to draw on his previous accomplishments in creating benchmarks for success at GCS.
“The Board emphasized strengthening the community and continuing to bring it together,” Walsh said. “They were also looking for someone who could adapt to their school culture and can move the school into the future.”
Walsh said the Board was also interested in his financial accomplishments at his previous school, which he credits with taking a team approach, assessing needs, and looking at opportunities. Walsh expects to strengthen the school’s financial infrastructure, increase admissions, and boost fundraising efforts.
With hopeful enthusiasm, Matt Walsh plans to also focus on updating the school’s strategic plan. To create a blueprint for success, the key is identifying unique strengths of GCS that are difficult—even impossible—for other schools to replicate. For the new head of school, the path is forward.