In the spring of 1951, the Board of the North Avenue Presbyterian School met to consider its next steps for the financially strapped girls school. Although the school’s prospects were bleak, and closing seemed inevitable, a bold suggestion was made: why not open a new school, a coeducational Christian school committed to academic excellence. William L. Pressly of Chattanooga’s McCallie School accepted the challenge of coming to Atlanta to build and lead the new school, which was to be called The Westminster Schools.
Continuing briefly at the former NAPS facility in downtown Atlanta, Westminster moved in 1953 to a beautiful suburban site made available by Trustee Fritz Orr, who owned the adjacent day camp on Nancy Creek Road. At the same time, Washington Seminary, also a girls’ school, closed and merged much of its student body and faculty with Westminster’s. The new school was coeducational through grade 6 and coordinate (two similar single-sex programs) in grades 7-12, and in the earliest days consisted of three academic buildings and two Quonset-style field houses.
The new school flourished, in large part because of Dr. Pressly’s clear commitment to academic excellence. In the mid-1950s, Westminster became the test site for a new advanced studies program that soon evolved into the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, and the school’s involvement in that program has steadily increased over the years, with the current graduating classes taking, on average, four AP courses per student. Additional parcels of land were purchased, and in 1962 the original three academic buildings were augmented by an expansive new administration building, later named in Dr. Pressly’s honor. The student body also steadily increased; the Class of 1955 included108 students, and ten years later the Class of 1965 had 163 students. Current graduating classes number 190-200. From its earliest days until 1978, the school operated a boarding department, and students from all over the South came to Atlanta’s Westminster. The school’s graduates attended an increasing variety of colleges and universities, and their reputation for excellent academic preparation and strong character and leadership skills eventually set a standard for Southern schools. In 1965, Dr. Pressly and the Board took the then-courageous step to integrate the school, a watershed moment for independent schools in the South, and in 1972 four African-American students graduated from the school. Today, over 300 students of color attend Westminster. The school also changed its approach to coeducation, gradually merging the academic programs until 1986, when the two divisions of the high school finally were combined under one administration.
In almost every field of endeavor the school has set its mark of accomplishment. The school has won over 200 state athletic championships and has won the GADA Directors Cup for best overall athletic program in its classification. The school’s various academic and debate teams have likewise earned numerous state and regional titles. Students who have grown through the school’s arts program have gone on to stellar careers as musicians and actors. Westminster’s graduates have become outstanding academicians (including numerous Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholars) and educators. Beyond such notable individual distinctions, however, the school’s graduates as a whole have gone on to lives of service and leadership inspired by Westminster’s ideals and commitment to Christian values.
Part of the key to Westminster’s success has been strong and stable leadership. Dr. Pressly was the President of the school until his retirement in 1973. He was succeeded, in turn, by Emerson Johnson (1973-76), Donn M. Gaebelein (1976-1991), and William Clarkson IV (1991-present). The school has also been blessed with a large number of other talented educational leaders, many of whom have gone on to become heads of schools throughout the nation.
In 2001, as part of commemoration of the school’s first 50 years, Dr. Clarkson and the Board initiated a comprehensive strategic plan process, and one year later, the school launched Strategic Plan 2002. Not resting on the successes of the past, Westminster has ventured forth into its second half century with characteristically high aspirations. In August 2005 the school opened the new 104,000 sq. ft. Junior High building, completing a ten-year process of building four major new facilities on campus and providing optimally designed space for every activity and age group. In fall 2006 Westminster kicked off its Teaching for Tomorrow capital campaign that will provide funding for new standards of academic excellence and faculty support. Observes President Bill Clarkson, “With gratitude for the vision and legacy of the past, Westminster is always committed to pursuing true excellence, both for individual student accomplishment and the overall growth of the school, ever observing the best in its historic mission.”
For more information about The Westminster Schools history, please visit the Archives.