For the first time in a year and a half, Cynthia Weldon-Lassiter can devote 100 percent of her attention to the kids at her school.
It’s not that she neglected them before. But for the past year or so, a big portion of her job — headmaster at St. Andrew’s School in Richmond’s Oregon Hill — included an unlikely title: building contractor.
The school has educated disadvantaged children for more than a century, starting with neighborhood kids in 1894. St. Andrew's provides about 100 children, from Richmond as well as Henrico and Chesterfield counties, a free private-school education.
But in the fall of 2014, an assessment of the school’s building at Cherry and Idlewood streets found that urgent repairs were needed to the roof, gutters and walls.
Water leaks had rotted the woodwork around some of the arched windows and caused paint to peel and plaster to crumble in some rooms. The school also needed an HVAC system, technology upgrades and new furniture for classrooms and offices.
So Weldon-Lassiter was confronted with overseeing the $1.2 million renovation.
It took school officials about five months to raise the needed funds. They generated about $1.49 million through grants, gifts and in-kind donations of services or materials.
Work on the building was done over the summer while students were out. It was to be completed before they returned Sept. 8.
At least that was the plan.
On Sunday, Aug. 30, the day before the new furniture was supposed to be moved into the classrooms, an air-conditioning unit on the third floor caught fire.
There was smoke damage in the classroom where the fire occurred, plus water in the three rooms below it. The rooms needed to dry out before the school year could begin.
While the damage was minimal, school officials said, the first day of class was pushed back two weeks to allow for the completion of work and to account for disruptions from the UCI Road World Championships.
IN HER WORDS
There is a book I read in April, during our spring break, called "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio. It is a moving narrative about kindness, hopefulness and the goodness of human beings. The story was so captivating that I had my oldest son read it. I also used it as the basis of my homily for our St. Andrew's School fifth-grade graduation in June.
A small moment in life with a big impact
My dissertation topic was about homeless mothers and their young children, so I spent about three years visiting homeless shelters as part of my research. During my very first shelter visit, I was to meet the director, to whom I had spoken on the phone and exchanged emails. When I arrived, there were about half a dozen people in the room — one was the director, and the others were homeless clients. Without even giving it a second thought, I scanned the room to look for the person I thought was the director. I walked up to a woman and extended my hand to introduce myself. She shook it but then directed me to a woman who was sitting across the room. I had made an unforgivable error in assuming I could look at someone and determine if they were homeless or not. Although I still cringe at that mistake, it taught me an incredibly valuable lesson that I carried with me during my research and to today: Never make assumptions about people based on appearance. It might also be why "Wonder" struck a cord with me. Outward appearance tells you very little about a person.
Alternate profession or course of study
I love books, so without a doubt I would be a bookseller and own an indie bookstore. In fact, at lunch (recently), some of the faculty members were discussing an upcoming book club for our after-school students. One of the books, "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," is about two children who leave home to live in the Met. Each faculty member shared where he or she would live. My answer, of course, was a bookstore!
Something you’d like to do
Be fluent in a second language. I took Spanish in high school and college, but my goal is to be bilingual.
Something that might surprise others
In third grade, I learned to recite the alphabet backward. I’ve only met one other person who could do it.
My father, who is honest, exudes a quiet confidence and is full of wisdom. I can always count on his sage advice, especially when confronted by a difficult issue.
Over the past five years, as a part of our whole-child approach, the initiatives we’ve put in place at St. Andrew's School have truly made a difference. Our dynamic after-school provides academic support as well as enrichment and physical fitness activities for our students. In regards to nutrition, our school community is part of the farm-to-school initiative, which means we have fresh fruits and vegetables every day as part of breakfast, lunch and snacks. I am not only amazed at the success of our after-school and nutrition programs, but extremely pleased with this initial work.
Favorite thing about Richmond region
It has to be diversity of offerings, from incredible restaurants to numerous family activities and events.
Position: headmaster, St. Andrew's School
Born/hometown: Oct. 12, 1967; Richmond
College: Richard Bland College; Virginia Commonwealth University; Teachers College, Columbia University
Family: husband Milan; sons Tate, Cole and Dane