PEAK Director Stan Wood started teaching at Heathwood right after he graduated from college in 1983 and has never left. Over that time, he’s been a P.E. teacher, coach, athletic director, and Upper School geography and science teacher. But it’s as the founder and long-time director of Heathwood’s signature outdoor education program that he’s had his most significant impact on the school.
Here he talks about the origins of the PEAK program, why it's such a good fit with Heathwood’s educational philosophy, and what’s made this a rewarding place to teach for almost 35 years.
So you started out as a P.E. teacher, right?
That’s right. I had just graduated from Carolina when I was hired as a Middle School P.E. teacher. Over the next 15 years, I coached a sport almost every season—softball, basketball, B-team football, and track. In that time, we won two state championships in varsity boys basketball and had a number of undefeated seasons in B-team football.
I was here when we started the track program around 1986. We didn’t have track facilities at the time, so we just spraypainted a track where the softball field is now. We also didn’t have facilities for any of the field events like the shot put and long jump, so when we went to away meets at schools that did have those facilities, we’d quickly train the kids on those events before the meet, and then send them out to compete.
Then you became Heathwood’s Athletic Director … what prompted the shift from that role to PEAK?
I was Athletic Director and head varsity boys basketball coach for about ten years, and the idea for the PEAK program actually grew out of my athletics experience, which brought to light the value of some of the resources Heathwood already had in place. At the time we had a Project Adventure ropes course and a rudimentary climbing wall in the gym, and we used the ropes course a lot in P.E. classes. The school also had a number of experiential learning opportunities like the 7th grade camping trip, Winterim and others. All of those things were interesting and ahead of their time, and they all appealed to me. I thought an outdoor education program would be a good way to tie a number of things together and enhance the Heathwood experience.
I pitched the idea to Head of School Bob Shirley in the spring of 1997, and he was very receptive because he saw it as a good fit with the philosophy of learning by doing that Heathwood was known for. So we began the program formally the next school year.
What were the first components of the PEAK program?
Our first piece of equipment was an upgraded climbing wall in the Lower Gym—it’s still there and still in use. We also launched an outdoor education elective in the Upper School—which has evolved into the Wilderness Exploration class we continue to offer today—and introduced nine weeks of outdoor ed. into the Middle School P.E. curriculum, which, again, is something we continue to do today. We’ve since expanded outdoor education in the MS to include a Leadership elective and we’ve added classes into the Lower School and Early Childhood curricula as well.
Those early years when we didn’t have a lot of equipment also gave us an opportunity to look around and identify resources we could take advantage of, and there were so many of them right here on our campus—the pond, the river, lots of room to ride mountain bikes. At one point, we realized there was a beaver dam in the swamp right alongside Heathwood Road, and we were able to bus kids down there to see things firsthand that they’d been studying in the classroom—it was like having National Geographic right here on campus.
What led to the development of the PEAK facilities we have today?
Ironically, since I coached track here, the Project Adventure ropes course got taken down to make room for an expansion of our track facilities. Three years into the program, Steve Hickman, who was Head of School at that time, came to me and said, you need a ropes course. We did some research into different kinds of courses and what you could do on each of them, and decided on the Alpine Tower we have now, which was much better than what we had before.
That was around 2003. Five or six years later, we built the Odyssey course through the generosity of Heathwood parents—it was a fund-the-need project at the Heathwood Auction. We had started doing team building and leadership training programs, and the Odyssey course is excellent for that. It’s what allowed us to start doing significant amounts of community outreach, working with church groups, civic organizations, and businesses. We’ve got a trucking company from Alabama, for example, that comes several times a year to send their executives through the Odyssey course.
How does the PEAK program enhance the overall educational experience for Heathwood students?
It gives students opportunities to learn by doing. And it helps them gain confidence, accept responsibility, take initiative. That’s especially true for students who participate in the Upper School’s PEAK Student Leadership program.
For Middle School students, having a program like PEAK on campus has made class trips more impactful as well. Heathwood has a long tradition of all Middle School grade levels going on overnight trips, but initially those trips were run by other groups. A few years after we started the PEAK program, we realized we had the capacity to run them in-house, which has allowed us to work more closely with teachers to coordinate activities on the trips with what students had been doing in the classroom, so it really ties in with the curriculum.
You’ve been at Heathwood for your entire career. What’s kept you here this long, and how has the school changed (and stayed the same) over that time?
The kids and the teachers are just tremendous here, and the parents are very supportive. Our campus is phenomenal too—especially for a program like PEAK. It’s also been really nice that I’ve been able to have two careers in one job. I loved coaching while I was doing that, and I love what PEAK has turned into. It’s exceeded all my expectations.
Heathwood’s campus has certainly changed over the years I’ve been here—our facilities have grown and blossomed. Our athletic facilities have definitely improved, and we’ve taken increasing advantage of resources like our pond, trails and forested areas, and used them in great ways. I also love that we’re doing things like partnering with City Roots—it’s really neat to have crops being cultivated on our property.
What hasn’t changed in the time I’ve been here is Heathwood’s orientation toward learning beyond the classroom. That’s what makes this school unique.
And one thing that I really appreciate about teaching here is that Heathwood has an impact on people. So people tend to stay connected with the Heathwood community, and they come back and you get to catch up with them. And sometimes they even come back to work with you. PEAK Associate Directors Kelly Turbeville and Brice Spires are both Heathwood alums. Former associate directors Dunbar Lyles, Katherine Holloway, and Becca Reynolds are also Heathwood alums.