With Honors

{ GREENWICH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL’S 2018 COMMUNITY CHANGEMAKER }

An exceptional boy in possession of everything but opportunity, buoyed by an improbable community of benefactors, sails into Columbia University and a life of greatness. This is the story of Alexander Hamilton, but it is also that of Andres Soto, graduate of Waterside School in Stamford. Andres was the first child that Greenwich native Duncan Edwards met after taking the helm as executive director of the elementary school in 2003. “In many ways, Andres looked like so many of the generations of kids I knew at Brunswick,” says Edwards, who ran Brunswick for fourteen of his twenty five years with the school and is himself an alum. “Andres was obviously bright, athletic and, just like all the kids at Brunswick, he had big dreams. The only thing that was different was there was no guarantee that he was going to get an opportunity befitting his promise.”

That’s where Waterside came in. “I’m a patriot, and Waterside just showcases everything that’s truly special about our country,” says Edwards, who briefly ran international relief organization Americares before joining Waterside. “Children probably more doomed than destined are now certain to get a chance to do both great and generous things.”

Waterside, founded in 2001 by Edwards’ close friend, Konrad “Chip” Kruger, has a mission that is pure America: to be an independent school of the absolute highest quality, but instead of including a measured number of children of color or circumstance, create it exclusively for strong families and kids who have everything but the benefit of resources. Every family at Waterside pays tuition but only as they can afford, which means every Waterside student is on scholarship and tuition covers only 8 percent of the school’s operating costs.

“Somehow we have to find the other 92 percent, celebrate for five seconds at the end of the fiscal year, then start all over again,” says Edwards. “In many ways, it’s an independent school with absolutely everything except a guaranteed stream of revenue.” In fact, the school almost closed in 2006. “We were down to our last $25,000, and when the world went upside down in ’08 it was really tough,” he remembers. “We made a decision, whether it was right or wrong, that with the money we were raising we would dedicate almost every penny to the direct benefit of our children.”

That benefit is most tangibly seen among the 98 percent of grads (the school runs through fifth grade) who earn admission and full scholarships to the best independent schools in the area. “Number one, we made the decision very early that we weren’t trying to build a nice school for poor kids,” says Edwards. “Too often, whether people like to admit it or not, in serving those we serve, the conclusion is that pretty good is plenty good. People have watered down standards and have labeled something else as success for children with less.” Instead, Waterside was created as a launching pad fueled by ambition. “What we’ve decided to do is say there’s an absolute measure of success regardless of who you are, where you come from or what your situation is; whether you’re a child of privilege going to an extraordinary place like Brunswick, or you’re a child with many things but without material advantage going to Waterside. We’re going to all aim at the same point of excellence for every child.”

Edwards, who will be honored as this year’s Community Changemaker by the Greenwich International Film Festival at l’escale on May 31, would rather redirect praise to the amazing Waterside faculty, board, supporters and parents who strive to give these kids a better life. “I’m not sure I view myself worthy of any of this so we’d have to argue that,” he says, chuckling. “I’d be misleading you if I said I was a man of great vision. I found my way here by chance and like most people who get involved at Waterside, whether they work here or they support it financially, once it finds a path to your heart, it’s pretty easy to be passionate about it.”

It’s also pretty easy to understand why both a mold-breaking school like Waterside—and an established community like Greenwich—count themselves blessed to know a man like Edwards. “I lost my dad when I was a fairly young man, and he was always big on measuring your success by the number of lives you touch with your life and reminding us that the measure of us all is what sort of footprints we leave, rather than what things we gather along the way,” he says. “The core of Waterside is that you’ve got kids, regardless of their circumstance, getting the chance to dream in Technicolor; and the reward will be, in time, their life outcomes. In this work, there’s no ringing recognition or any want of it; you’ll see there’s nobody’s name hanging on the walls of the school; people give and engage here because they care, or maybe better, because they can’t help but care.”

What’s next? “The dream honestly is to make sure that this place, like all great places, is forever,” says Edwards. “And to inspire others of like mind and heart to do something similar in different communities.”
watersideschool.org

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