Building A School, Realizing A Dream

by Kym Byrnes, photography by Walter P. Calahan

Johnny Graham

Johnny Graham

A traditional proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. For the past two years Johnny Graham has been bringing together the village needed to realize the dream of a college preparatory boarding school in Carroll County.

Graham moved to New Windsor in 2016 from Atlanta to begin the journey of creating and opening Springdale Preparatory School. Located on the grounds of the former Brethren Center (which had previously been the campus of Blue Ridge College) and the former New Windsor Middle School, Springdale Prep opened in August 2017, serving grades 5-11. Fifty-two students are currently enrolled, 22 as boarders.

In a very short time, Graham has woven his ambitions for an international boarding school and all the economic growth and cultural impact that comes with it, into the fabric of Carroll County. His grit in chasing down a dream, his passion for improving lives, his impact on the local economy and his commitment to collaboration county-wide contributed to Carroll Magazine’s decision to name him Person of the Year.

“My philosophy is that it takes an entire community to propel a project forward,” Graham said. “So while I’ve been blessed enough to have over two decades of independent secondary boarding school experience, and the Lord blessed me with a solid vision for Springdale, it takes those partnerships to grow an organization. It takes an entire community to embrace a vision like this — this isn’t something you come across every day.”

Johnny Graham grew up a “small-town country kid” in Lemon Springs, N.C. He came from meager means and felt fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a boarding school in Tennessee as a teenager, an experience that would shape his future.

Johnny Graham

Johnny Graham

After boarding school, Graham spent decades building a career in public and private schools — working as everything from teacher to dean to head of school to coach. Prior to coming to Carroll County, Graham was head of school at an independent boarding and day school in Atlanta.

Backed by an education group based in China, Graham had a dream of a small, intimate prep school that offers students from around the globe a hands-on, experiential education in an environment that fosters an understanding of diversity and personal growth.

Reaching Out

Given Graham’s aggressive timeline to open the school in 2017, just a year after choosing New Windsor as the location, he knew building local relationships was going to be vital to his success. He needed to network, he needed to collaborate, he needed to engage. And he hit the ground running.

“I met Johnny when Springdale had no students yet. The conversation we had was the mission of partnerships, giving students the opportunity to explore and excel, community interaction and meshing of projects and people,” said Nancy McCormick, Taneytown’s economic development and Main Street manager.

McCormick said that collaboration between organizations like Springdale and municipalities strengthen the students, instructors and information that can “raise the bar” for all. Now a member of Springdale’s advisory board, she said Graham is “more of a listener than a voice — he lets his experienced staff lead the charge.”

John “Jack” Lyburn, director of economic development for Carroll County, said that Springdale is already contributing to the tax base and adding jobs in the county, and as the school grows, so will its impact on the economy.

Johnny with Kids

Johnny Graham with Springdale Preparatory School students. Photo by Josh Kohn.

“There are many ways we are already feeling the positive impacts of Springdale — families are coming to Carroll County that otherwise wouldn’t, and spending dollars here they otherwise wouldn’t,” Lyburn said.

In addition to creating jobs and bringing folks to the county to spend money on food, lodging, shopping and entertainment, the collaborative nature of Springdale also brings economic benefit to the county.

For example, the county Department of Recreation and Parks has recently formalized an agreement with Springdale that will allow the community to use the onetime New Windsor Middle facilities and grounds for recreational activities.

“[Graham] recognized the value of a partnership with Recreation and Parks, both to the school and community, early on, and we have a great working relationship which started on Day One and continues to grow,” said department director Jeff Degitz.

According to Degitz, Carroll has saved millions of dollars in recent decades by maximizing the use of public buildings and reducing the need to build numerous separate community centers and ballfields for recreational activities. And the Rec and Parks/Springdale partnership will likely continue to grow — Degitz said it’s possible the facility usage partnership could eventually expand to include programming such as camps or other activities.

A Strong Foundation Within

As hard as Graham had to work to build connections outside of the school, he had to work even harder to build the internal workings of the institution. He credits his initial success of opening the school and attracting students to the team of people he has surrounded himself with.

“I think I’m most proud of this dedicated and talented team of professionals that I was blessed enough to recruit that work alongside me every day,” Graham said.

With a chuckle, Graham spoke of the challenge of recruiting a staff when the school didn’t yet have a phone number, Wi-Fi, classrooms or students.

“Really what I was able to sell these talented folks on was a vision for what it would be in the future, and they absorbed that vision and they help me execute it daily,” Graham said. “That’s what makes this special to me — we had nothing; we didn’t even own the property yet, and these folks helped me build Springdale.”

Several years ago, Art Seibel retired from a successful career in business and finance and settled on his New Windsor farm. He met Graham after Graham had acquired the Brethren Center property next to his farm. Before long, Seibel left retirement to become Springdale’s chief operating officer.

“[Graham’s] relentless pursuit of this dream and the enthusiasm with which he pursues this dream is infectious to those who come in contact with him. He tells his story of what he is building and people become entranced in his vision,” Seibel said. “Many of the staff at Springdale want to be part of building something from nothing and to be pioneers in taking on something extremely monumental but that has a chance to turn into something magnificent.”

There are inherent risks in this dream, but if successful, the benefits will be far-reaching.

“If it succeeds, it will be a win for the kids attending; it will be a win for a campus of deteriorating buildings that have been put back to their original use from 165 years ago; it will be a win and economic boost for the town of New Windsor; and it will be a win for a closed Middle School, which was sitting deteriorating and is now open again in our town,” Seibel said.

None of it — not the relationships, the economic impact, the dedicated staff or the historic campus in a quaint town — will matter to Graham unless the school is changing the lives of its students. To Graham, the end game is to inspire, motivate and engage invested learners.

Johnny Graham

Johnny Graham with photographer Walt Calahan. Photo by Josh Kohn.

Laura Waltrup lives in Hampstead with her husband and two teenage sons. She said school has always been a challenge for her eldest son, Mason. Middle school was a struggle, and his first year in high school was miserable, both academically and socially. They were desperate for something different — a school experience that accommodates the learning needs and style of the individual learner.

“The traditional public school environment just was not working for him,” Waltrup said. “He thought he was stupid, a failure. He spoke only of dropping out of school as soon as he was of age to do so. We were all at our wits’ end — worried about his mental state and ability to graduate high school.”

And then they heard about a new school opening in New Windsor, and they went to speak with Graham, whom Waltrup calls a “transformational leader … with an amazing vision.”

Now an 11th-grader in his second year at Springdale, Mason has “come out of his shell,” his mother said.

“He has confidence, he is viewed as a leader in the school, he is self-motivated to perform well and is excelling — he went from being a C, D and F student to A’s and B’s,” Waltrup said. “Every learning facilitator, staff member, administrator, etc. knows Mason — not just his name — they know him. Kids don’t get lost there.”

Family at the heart

If anyone understands the endless hours and sweat equity that Graham has invested in this vision, it’s his family. Graham came to New Windsor with the built-in support team of his wife, Kimberly, and four sons: Chris, 21, Julian, 19, Jeffrey, 14, and Ashton, 12.

When his family moved to New Windsor in 2016, there was a period where they were renting rooms and sleeping on air mattresses, surviving on ramen, and working 21-hour days to lay the foundation for the school. It was a family affair, with everyone playing a role — Julian the de facto IT guru, Kimberly the unofficial marketing professional.

“Leaving our home in Atlanta, coupled with leaving behind the comfortable life we’d built for ourselves there, was much more difficult than the work involved with building a solid foundation, mission, student and employee recruiting strategy and vision for the school itself,” Graham said. “We had nothing but ourselves. All risk and determination to make it work. Springdale is growing today because of their sacrifices. So I smile now when I hear assertions that our work is difficult.”

Kimberly believes that Johnny has found his calling. She said the journey to open and grow Springdale has been both exhausting and rewarding. She describes her husband as resilient, stubborn, brilliant and very loving.

In fact, she admits with a laugh that at times he may just be too committed. Finding a healthy work-life balance is a struggle for the man chasing a dream.

“He works way too hard at the expense of his own sort of balance — sometimes he goes at it full-steam and we have to rein him in,” Kimberly said.

For Johnny Graham, family is at the very heart of everything he does. Of all the amazing teachers and mentors and leaders he’s met over the years, he said he remains most inspired by his father. A school janitor who had his own landscaping side business, Graham’s father passed an intense work ethic on to his son.

“I get my dog-like work ethic from my dad, Johnnie Graham. No task is ever too impossible; he’s not going to bed until all the work is done,” Graham said. “That is where my drive comes from. Unequivocally, my father was my No. 1 influence. So when people criticize me for not having balance in my work life and personal life, I tell them that I blame my dad.”

The school is still in its infancy, but Graham has ambitious goals that include growing to 300 students — a mix of boarders and day learners — in five years, and in the next 10 years adding a free-standing performing arts center, indoor athletic field house, and a state-of-the-art science lab facility, among other things. He also aspires to build a $10 million endowment by the fall of 2028.

Gauging Success

Graham said he has felt welcomed in Carroll County from the moment he arrived. But he has also faced challenges.

“The last 2½ years have not been easy for Johnny as he has set up the school,” Seibel said. “He has had personal hardships, government roadblocks, owner challenges, and some local folks who don’t want him to succeed, but he has and continues to battle each of those to see his dream be successful.”

The village is coming together as Graham envisioned, and although the future includes the stressors that come with growth, Graham is most focused on the impact he will have on people.

“I do not look at data as an indicator of success, and it’s not even my job to say if I’ve been successful or not,” Graham said. “But here’s what I do know: When I have a mom who had a husband die at the age of 39, and she’s single, and we’ve provided an educational environment for her two children, I know I’ve made a difference. When I have a family who has had their sons in a different school every year for the past four years and they come to me with tears in their eyes and say thank you for opening Springdale, I know that a difference has been made in their lives.”

“When we have a situation where the jobs are being brought to New Windsor and that economically we are contributing and impacting the quality of life in this little section of Carroll County, I know that’s a difference. I don’t look at numbers involved. I do spend a lot of time each day analyzing the impact on people’s lives and on the area I serve.”