Every morning Head of School John Webster takes 15-30 minutes with the San Antonio Academy student body to set the tone for the day. In this short chapel service he is direct, yet affable. His voice is full of genuine concern for the 345 boys gathered in the warm light of Ellison Hall.
That distinctive tone permeates the atmosphere that Webster has created during his 32 years as head of the pre-K-8 school. He stresses simple, memorable truths that sink into the hearts and minds of boys.
His oft-repeated maxim, “Be honest. Be kind. Be the best you can be,” has become the school’s trademarked motto and will remain with the community when Webster, 69, retires at the end of the 2016-17 school year.
Conducting business behind an array of toys at the edge of his desk, Webster has an approachable demeanor that is one of the secrets of his success. Never aloof or harsh, he wants boys to feel secure as boys, so that they can mature into men with a solid emotional foundation.
“What we do is important; some would say sacred,” Webster said. “You’ve got these little lives and you’re helping them to chart their course.”
Boyhood at San Antonio Academy is a carefully cultivated blend of high expectations, preserved innocence, and joie de vivre. The limited military program is mandatory in the upper school, designed to help boys understand self-discipline and the value of teamwork, but the campus does not feel rigid.
As testament to the school’s relaxed atmosphere, Webster pointed out a group of 8th graders practicing for a performance of Julius Caesar. Enthusiastically rehearsing a death scene, they were scattered about the yard. No one seemed worried about looking cool.
“I always knew I wanted joy. If schools with pre-K-8 don’t have joy…” Webster said, shaking his head to imply the lost opportunities of boyhood.
Webster is the first to comfort a crying kindergartener or offer a listening ear to a student whose parents are divorcing. As the students get older, nurturing is accompanied by teaching responsibility. His chapel messages often include a call for the “big guys” to set a good example for the “little guys.”
This unique atmosphere has been hard won.
Since 1985, Webster has been charged with maintaining vision and balance while charting the waters of change. When he stepped into the position as head of school, he replaced Col. W.T. Bondurant Jr., a man who had become like a second father to him. The two had met several years before when Webster was on a recruiting trip from The McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he worked in the admissions office.
Bondurant did not hide the school’s challenges and asked Webster to spend three days on the San Antonio Academy campus to make his case. When Webster returned to Chattanooga after the visit, his wife could tell by the look on his face that they would be moving to Texas. They did so with open eyes and a sense of divine guidance.
“I knew the school had problems. I knew things needed to change,” Webster said. “This is a ministry.”
Once in San Antonio, Webster faced the daunting task of preserving the school’s beloved heritage in the face of declining enrollment. Enrollment had dropped from 186 to 173 over the previous year. Only 99 students had re-enrolled for the 1985-86 school year, and not all of those spots were held with any sort of meaningful deposit or official paperwork.
Webster didn’t make immediate changes as he tried to craft a strategy. However, after two years, it was time to act. The school was $790,000 in debt and unaccredited. Financial constraints had long kept the administration from putting its core values into action. The kids naturally inclined to succeed – students who were athletic, bright, and popular – were having a good time, but others had a mixed experience.
“I wanted the culture to change so there was joy,” Webster said.
Webster got to work, under the guidance of his board of trustees and later an advisory council of community and business leaders that included Tom Frost, Red McCombs, and John “Chico” Newman. Webster, who until then had not dealt much with development, had to learn the language of net income, endowments, and personnel management. He speaks with fondness about tough lessons learned.
“Working for John Newman in those years when the school was struggling was a little like being chained to the oars in the galley in the movie Ben-Hur,” Webster said. “Sitting in front of some of those guys is absolutely, even today, quasi-terrifying.”
Over the next few years, Webster and the board restored the school to health, obtaining accreditation from the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest in 1988. They made needed repairs to the campus, and sought high-quality faculty. Webster believed that teachers should be compensated in accordance with the performance expected of them. Today, Academy teacher salaries are among the top 10% citywide. Many faculty members have been with the school for more than 20 years.
“From the very beginning, John constantly reminded me of the need to invest in the best teachers, because parents want their children to go to where the good teachers are,” Newman said. “He was absolutely right.”
Most importantly, the board worked with Webster to craft a mission statement that he wove into almost every aspect of the school.
Over the years, some have floated the idea of expanding the academy into high school or going co-ed. Meanwhile, technology has transformed the teaching profession. For Webster, fidelity to the mission has determined the school’s path.
“From day one, John had his north star, what he came to call ‘guy-land,’” Newman said. “All his decisions were made with the guys and their teachers in mind. Knowing what you want to accomplish is very powerful.”
Limiting the school to pre-K-8 and maintaining single-sex education is essential to the academy’s mission. Webster likes giving the middle school boys a chance to hold onto their youth while also practicing leadership. The all-boy element allows students to be just that: all boy.
“There’s magic when you do a single-sex school correctly,” Webster said.
The focus has paid off. Fifty percent of students participate in arts programs, and 85-90% participate in sports. Almost all of the boys qualify for the Duke Talent Identification Program. Many go on to hold class office at their high schools and attend top-tier colleges.
By 2005, the school had fully re-established itself in the community. Once people saw that the mission was working, Webster heard fewer calls for upward expansion or co-ed integration. Parents trusted his moderation of technology in the classroom and careful consideration of new initiatives.
This steady hand is the most obvious similarity between Webster and his successor, Clint DuBose, 47. DuBose comes from Houston’s Annunciation Orthodox School, where he was head of the middle school.
DuBose understands the special nature of the role he will step into in the fall. Like Webster, he has a moderate approach to new curricula and technology. DuBose is taking time to get feedback from parents, teachers, and members of the wider community.
“[San Antonio Academy] is a special place where people love their school,” DuBose said. “I feel that its my duty and my charge now to protect [the qualities they love], not change them.”
Webster, who will be 70 next year, is looking to finish strong. He and wife Marilyn, who recently retired from teaching at Keystone School, have a cabin and some grandchildren waiting for some quality time in Colorado. Webster will work part-time with the academy’s board on alumni relations and fundraising.
Even as retirement approaches, he is committed to being available to his students and faculty, listening to problems and offering inspiration.
“It’s easy enough to be emotional, but when you do that you lose focus. I don’t want to lose my focus,” Webster said. “I don’t want the Kobe Bryant tour. I would barf. I want every day to be the best it can be.”
For Webster, that starts with chapel. He sees himself as a man of quiet faith, and he has sought to enhance the chapel experience to give the community a spiritual foundation on which to build.
As a result, chapel at San Antonio Academy is not a mere formality. Webster incorporates film clips into his Bible-based messages, using movies such as Invictus, The King’s Speech, The Blind Side, and Rocky to illustrate the principles he wants to instill in students. Parents and teachers attend chapel along with the boys, reinforcing its importance.
“What ties it together is love,” Webster said. “If they know you love them, they’ll work for you.”