published Friday, December 6th, 2013

GPS greets new leader: Nationally recognized educator is first woman to lead school in 48 years

  • photo
    Autumn Graves mingles with students and faculty in the auditorium after members of the Girls Preparatory School's board of trustees appointed her as the next head of school, effective July 1, 2014.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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Girls Preparatory School needed a leader who could make each year exemplary.

They got a woman of the decade.

Thursday morning, GPS announced that nationally-recognized educator Autumn Graves has been appointed as its new head of school.

She will replace head of school Randy Tucker, who held the position for 26 years.

Just after 8 a.m., the Richmond, Va., native debuted to a school assembly of overwhelming support -- a standing-room-only crowd of students, teachers and guests inside GPS' auditorium.

Oprah Winfrey's magazine named Graves to its list of "Women to Watch for the Decade" in 2010 after her leadership in Philadelphia's education reform. The confident, sure-spoken Graves paced the stage and opened up to her audience of young learners like Winfrey herself might.

"There are adults in this community who are champions in helping girls find their voice," she said. "That's what told me that I need to be the head of GPS."

Graves brings a stacked resume of educational experience with her to the 107-year-old school.

She has served as the upper school dean of students at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., which has educated a plethora of children from high-profile families, including Sasha and Malia Obama, Chelsea Clinton, Al Gore's son and Joe Biden's grandchildren.

Graves also recently served as president of Girard College, an independent boarding school in Philadelphia for grades 1-12 that has exclusively served low-income, single-parent families since 1848.

Perhaps more than anything else, Graves knows what it's like to be a student. She is a doctoral candidate in higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania, and her personal website counts down to the day she plans to graduate -- May 16, 2014.

"Before we get started, know this -- I'm in grad school," she joked. "I have a dissertation to write, and I feel your pain."

A video from the new administrator is available on the school's website at GPS.edu, where she introduces herself and her mission as head of students.

"I need to be a part of this next generation of girls being the next generation of leaders," she said. "In an all-girl school, we can focus on that, especially when all the leaders are girls."

In fact, Graves will be the first female head in 48 years when her role officially begins on July 1, 2014.

Nini Davenport, a 1977 graduate of GPS and the board chairwoman for the search committee that appointed Graves, said committee members were "captivated by her warmth, intelligence and passion for education."

Graves regularly updates her website's blog with reflective entries that blend education and women's issues, such as "In support of piano lessons" and "Can you be a feminine scientist?"

"She just emerged, far and away, as our favorite," said Lizzer Graham, chairwoman of the search committee and also a 1977 GPS graduate. "We wanted to do a very thorough search, and we really took our time before we found her."

After the 45-minute Graves welcome party came to an end, students had to go back to class. But between a thorough standing ovation and a recital of the GPS alma mater, Graves made it clear she felt she made the right choice with GPS.

Even if she's the new girl.

"If I come to sit at your table, and you don't have a space for me, it's OK," she said. "But hopefully someone will let me sit at their table for lunch tomorrow."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow him on Twitter at @PressLaFave.

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