Luther Memorial School
Where A School Is Like A Family
by Charles McGuigan
Five years before that fateful shot was fired at Fort Sumter propelling the Union into Civil War, Luther Memorial School had already opened its doors for the first time. It’s a school with a long history rooted in traditions that have remained constant—academic excellence, a faith-basis and a staff committed to the total development of the child. “Socially, academically and physically as well as spiritually,” Principal Dave Berlin will later tell me. Right now, though, I’m in the gymnasium where two dribbled basketballs create a syncopated rhythm that reverberates from the walls and lofty ceiling. Coach Dave Oliver is here with nine of his charges, teaching them a game that seems to be an amalgam of soccer, basketball and field hockey. I have no idea what it’s called, but it sure looks like fun. The kids move up and down the court, making goals or missing them, with Coach Oliver on the sidelines, sidling along, following their every movement, shouting out words of encouragement and gentle suggestions. He’s a seasoned teacher who in some very real ways considers this school his home.
On the bench, as the kids continue their game, Coach Oliver tells me he’s been teaching at Luther Memorial for 22 years and that he has seen scores and scores of children grow up at this school during his tenure.
“You know many of the kids come here from pre-school or kindergarten and stay all the way to the eighth grade, ten years or so,” he says. “And to me that makes it special.”
Likewise, many instructors at Luther Memorial continue teaching here for many years. “We teachers tend to stay which makes it more of a family than other schools,” Coach Oliver says.
As one of the kids makes a goal, Coach Oliver tells me that in all things Luther Memorial teaches students the basics before they tackle more complex subjects. “It’s about the fundamentals,” he says, watching a girl score a goal. “You learn to do a layup in basketball, but only after you’ve tried it a hundred times. Before you can go on to more challenging mathematics you’ve got to do the multiplication tables. Before you can learn to write you’ve got to understand punctuation.”
What’s equally important to academics and athletics at Luther Memorial is a spiritual world view. “When somebody gets into trouble Miss Olson says, ‘How would Jesus handle this problem?’” says Coach Oliver. “We are nurturing here. This is not punishment-based. We say, ‘What would God want you to do?’ It’s more of trying to guide the kids along the right path.”
But at Luther Memorial it’s not a single denominational path. “This is a Lutheran school but most of the kids here are Baptists or Presbyterians,” Coach Oliver says. “We also have a couple of kids who are atheists and we’ve had some Jewish kids come here.”
All students at Luther Memorial attend chapel at least once a week and many of the classes hold daily devotions. “That’s especially true in the lower grades,” he says. “In the upper grades they have religion classes where they go through the Bible and the teaching it’s Lutheran-based. A month ago the pastor had been talking about advent, so the kids get a good dose of religion every day, pretty much. But we don’t say, ‘What religion are you?’ We teach respect for people’s beliefs. Some people want more religion, and other people want less. We just try to keep to the middle ground.”
Coach Oliver came to teaching in a roundabout manner. After serving as a hospital corpsman for four and a half years in the Navy he went to school with the idea of becoming a fitness consultant. But as soon as he began student teaching, he had a change of heart. “I decided teaching kids was for me,” he says. “With the fitness training it was teaching the same stuff over and over again. But working with kids it was different every day.”
After teaching for a year on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Coach Oliver returned to Richmond with the hope of securing a teaching position in the Henrico or Chesterfield county public schools. Then he saw an ad in the newspaper for a teaching position at Luther Memorial. “I came here and after a week I fell in love with the place,” he says. “This is what I was looking for all along and didn’t really know it. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. You get to know everybody here. It’s not like every couple years you get a new principal. Things here stay the same.”
Coach Oliver has taught history and physical education and computer classes at Luther Memorial. He also serves as the school’s athletic director and maintains the school’s computers and internet infrastructure. What’s more, on his off-time, Coach Oliver attends virtually every soccer or basketball game his students play in, standing on the sidelines cheering them on.
As we talk, Coach Oliver is instructing the nine kids who are moving up and down the court. Sometimes he does it with a simple nod or a quick shake of the head. “After twenty some years of watching kids you can tell what they’re doing wrong,” he says. “You tell them one thing at a time. Not too much all at once. You show them how to make the foul shot, how to make the layup. And when they finally make it their faces light up. There’s nothing else in the world like that.”
Coach Oliver sees every student who attends Luther Memorial three to five times a week. And he sees some for as long as a decade. “Year after year you can see them getting better at something and gaining more confidence,” he says. “I talk with them about their interpersonal relationships. Sometimes a kid might say, ‘Nobody likes me.’ And I say, ‘Maybe you should stop talking negatively about other people. Look for something good to say because people like people who like them.’ A lot of times it’s the little stuff. We have had kids who had trouble at other schools, but that changed here because we have time to work with them.”
One of his favorite students of all time was a boy named Cody—his own and only son. “I saw him every day for eight years,” he says. “That was the greatest thing I could have hoped for.” And Cody followed in his father’s footsteps. “Cody’s become a much better teacher than I ever was,” Coach Dave Oliver says. “To say I’m proud doesn’t begin to describe the way I feel.”
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Principal Dave Berlin remembers Cody well, first as a student and later as an instructor. ”This is a very family-oriented school and Cody personifies that,” he says. I’m sitting across the desk from this clear-spoken and genial man who, like Coach Oliver, has been at Luther Memorial in one capacity or other for more than 20 years.
“Cody came to Luther Memorial the first year I started teaching here,” he says. “As I recall he was a struggling first grader and the teachers here took him under their wings and worked with him and provided him with the kind of instruction that worked best for him and he matured as time went on.”
By his middle school years, Cody had become an avid reader and after graduation, Dave Berlin kept tabs on Cody through Coach Oliver. By the by, Cody returned to Luther Memorial as a teacher before going on to the Richmond Public Schools. “I call it the Cody Oliver story,” says Dave. “It’s a story of success and a story of Luther Memorial.”
Dave Berlin’s wife, Dottie, had attended Luther Memorial School when it was still housed in its affiliate church, Bethlehem Lutheran, at the corner of Ryland and Grace Streets in the lower Fan District. And the Berlin’s son, before Dave began working here, spent his pre-school through eighth grade years at Luther Memorial. “So before I was connected with the school officially there were some connections that go way back,” he says. ”This has always been a community type school and it is still. We draw a lot of people from this immediate area as well as from the outer perimeters around Richmond.”
Much of the school’s success rests with its faculty. “We have a very dedicated staff and very little turnover,” Dave says. “These individuals are not necessarily here for the money, they’re here to serve the children and the families and I think that goes a long way in strengthening the school itself.”
Luther Memorial boasts more than 20 teachers, which is quite a lot when you consider the student body at capacity is about 180: There is no classroom here with more than 20 students. “We give every child individual attention,” says Dave. “And our teachers and administration conduct all activities in a loving and caring way. Luther Memorial is a Christian school. One could say it’s a church school, without being churchy.”
Primarily, the focus is on academics. “We comply with the SOLs though we’re not compelled to and we exceed what those requirements are,” he says. “We go beyond them with things we feel are important for educating the entire child.”
Luther Memorial is a very well-appointed school with 12 classrooms, not including the art studio, gymnasium and a very impressive computer lab with 22 state-of-the-art stations. “We have a wonderful computer lab with the most current technology,” Dave says.
But it’s the curriculum itself that’s finally outstanding. “We’re always teaching to prepare the child for the next level,” says Dave. “And to that end many of the textbooks that we use, particularly in the language arts, are a year ahead of the grade level. We use a vocabulary text beginning in the fourth grade that’s really a fifth grade text and then it goes right on up. I’ve had some of the kids come back to me after they’ve left eighth grade and say, ‘Mr. Berlin we’re using the same vocabulary book in freshman year in high school that you used with us as eighth graders.’ And I say, ‘Well I hope you kept your vocabulary book then.’”
When students at Luther Memorial reach the middle school years they have the opportunity to take advanced classes that will enable them to receive high school credits. “For instance, at seventh grade students have the option of taking pre-Algebra if they qualify and then as eight graders they can take Algebra 1 so they leave here with one high school credit under their belts,” Dave explains. “We have a similar program in Spanish.”
The proof of academic excellence is, of course, always in the pudding. And consistently Luther Memorial graduates achieve. “When our students go on to high school they fan out in many different directions,” says Dave Berlin. “They go to Benedictine and St. Gertrude’s and Trinity Episcopal. They go to the various governor’s schools—Appomattox, Maggie Walker. And they attend the IB programs in the Richmond area—city and counties. They move on, they achieve, but it all starts with Luther Memorial School. We have an open house scheduled for February 10 where people can see for themselves.”