About six weeks ago, Dr. Ed Spurka went home deflated. Then principal at Cambridge High School, he had been challenged by a concerned parent on the legal issues of a public school holding a baccalaureate ceremony.
For Spurka, a lifelong Catholic, the baccalaureate ceremony has been one of his favorite school events in his 27 years in education, and it was particularly poignant for Spurka during a trying school year that saw one Cambridge teacher pass from cancer and a student commit suicide.
So while Spurka listened to that concerned parent, he also wrestled within.
“I went home that night … and talked to my wife about how many times when I go to work I have to leave my religious views and my opinions at home,” Spurka said. “Meanwhile, am I being hypocritical? When I’m talking to our kids about being well-rounded students, the spiritual piece was missing.”
Personally, that is the appeal for Spurka in recently becoming Pinecrest Academy’s new Head of School. Spurka replaces Edward Lindekugel, who resigned in June after two years in that role, in so doing, he says, gets to meld his professional ambitions with his personal values.
“My whole self is here,” Spurka said.
Professionally, Spurka takes over at the private Pre-K3 through 12th-grade Catholic school surrounded by pine trees off Peachtree Parkway at an intriguing time. The school celebrated its 25th anniversary this past February and is embarking on an ambitious campaign fund to augment and expand the campus that serves more than 780 students.
Spurka has been a part of building something before. In 2011, he opened Cambridge, which grew to a student body of nearly 2,000. This past May, Cambridge was the top-ranked high school in Fulton County, according to U.S. News & World Report, and No. 6 in the state.
But Spurka feels his task at Pinecrest is less to build something new and more to build on something already working.
“I see people here that have a tradition of excellence,” Spurka said. “They’re a Blue Ribbon school. They’re very proud of their school. They need a little help with leadership, direction. I am here to enhance something that is already amazing.”
Spurka’s education career began in his native Philadelphia. In 1991, Spurka had graduated from West Chester University, where he was the quarterback on the football team. Spurka planned to get a law degree, but he first took a job as a counselor and teacher at a private boarding school for teenage boys who had been through the court system.
Spurka encountered students from across the country with various criminal histories. Some came from out west caught up in gangs. Others came from Miami with carjacking charges on their record. Those from nearby Philadelphia mostly dealt drugs.
Spurka had students like these together in one classroom. His job was to teach them, but he found that alone was not sufficient to help the students succeed. He played chess or watched television with them on the weekends. He took them to lunch or to see a movie on his days off. He helped them find a trade, made sure they earned a GED.
“I learned the value of connecting with people,” Spurka said. “I never thought I would connect with the kids. It’s the power of people that drives me.”
The whole experience convinced Spurka to give up law school and go into education. Fed up with the Northeast’s snow and intrigued by the buzz surrounding the Olympics coming to Atlanta, Spurka and his wife, Leslie, moved to Georgia in 1995, where he got a job teaching at South Forsyth High School. Spurka went on to work at Milton High School as a teacher and assistant to administrators; Brookwood High School as an assistant principal; Roswell High School as an assistant principal and principal; and Cambridge.
Earlier this summer, two Pinecrest board members sought out a meeting with Spurka to gain insight into Cambridge’s academic success. They had questions for Spurka about SAT scores and graduation rates. Spurka had questions, too: What colleges were Pinecrest students going to? How did Pinecrest integrate Christian values into the curriculum? How did they compete for teachers with public schools?
“Several weeks later, probably 60 hours of conversation, 60 hours of research, here I am as Head of School at Pinecrest,” Spurka said.
Spurka considers himself a “cheerleader” and “loyal.” He says that he can have a conversation “with just about anyone” and that raising his two children – Britt, a senior at Georgia, and Ann, a senior at Cambridge – has helped him understand that “every kid has different needs.”
And Spurka says he hopes to work closely with principals at Forsyth County’s public high schools, because as a resident of the county for 22 of his 23 years in Georgia “we all have an obligation to make (it) the best it can be.”
But Spurka says he also believes in competition, a message drilled into him by his grandfather as Spurka grew up playing three sports. Indeed, as he sat in a conference room Monday in the campus’ Lower School building, Spurka lamented the school’s lack of signage on Peachtree Parkway.
“I want to make sure that the people that are driving by Pinecrest, they know what Pinecrest is,” Spurka said.