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Girard College to name first black woman president

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by Martha Woodall, Philadelphia Inquirer

RRXGIRARD15bIn the college admissions essay she wrote for the University of Virginia, Autumn Adkins aid she hoped to open a boarding school for low-income students.

Now she’s getting a chance to run one.

Today, Girard College is scheduled to announce that Adkins, 36, will become the first African American woman to serve as president in the Fairmount boarding school’s 160-year history.

Adkins, an assistant principal at Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in New York City, said she knew her selection was a breakthrough for the private school that 19th-century merchant-banker Stephen Girard established to educate poor, white, orphan boys.

It took two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, seven months of around-the-clock picketing by civil-rights protesters, and a visit from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to integrate Girard in 1965. Another lawsuit led to the admission of the first girls in 1984.

“I have been the first of many things,” Adkins said, “but I think this is a wonderful statement about change.”

She is scheduled to arrive on Girard’s 43-acre campus in July and take charge of the school, which enrolls 669 students from first through 12th grade. All come from low-income homes, and many are from single-parent households.

The school provides a free, college-preparatory program. Students are selected on the basis of school records, admissions tests, recommendations, and interviews. Most come from Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Adkins, who was educated at the University of Virginia and Columbia University and who has extensive experience as a teacher and administrator at private schools, was the unanimous choice to succeed Dominic M. Cermele, who is retiring, Girard officials said.

In June, Cermele said he planned to retire at the end of this academic year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his graduation from Girard. He was named president in 2003.

“Autumn came out No. 1 on everyone’s list,” said Bernard Smalley, who cochaired the Girard committee that recommended Adkins after a national search. “And we had some really, really competent people.”

He added: “All the previous presidents of Girard College were white males. She doesn’t fit either of those definitions. She is a female of color, and that is significant.”

Smalley said a recruiting firm sifted through nearly 100 applications to winnow the field to 24 candidates. Eight made it to the first round of interviews, and then the group was trimmed to four.

He said Adkins was the unanimous choice of both the Girard College board of managers and the Board of Directors of City Trusts, which oversees the school and approved the appointment on Friday.

“This woman is going to lead Girard College into its best days,” said John J. Egan Jr., president of the City Trusts board. “Girard has a lot of good days behind it, but she is going to lead it into even better ones. She just lights up a room.”

Smalley, a member of City Trusts, said Girard officials were dazzled by Adkins’ academic credentials and experience and wowed by her passion for teaching and vision for educating all children.

Adkins, who had never heard of Girard before a recruitment firm contacted her in December, said she was impressed by what she saw earlier this month when she visited the campus and spent time in classrooms.

“I was so pleased with the teaching I saw, how the classrooms were set up, and how the children were treated,” Adkins said. “I knew this was a place where children are cared for and are pushed in an appropriate way.”

Adkins, a native of Monongahela, outside Pittsburgh, spent most of her childhood in Richmond, Va. She graduated from the Collegiate School, a private kindergarten-through-12th-grade school in Richmond. It was there, as a volunteer in a summer program for neighborhood students, that she came up with the idea of founding a boarding school for low-income students.

“It didn’t seem fair that I had the opportunity and financial ability to attend the school because of who my parents are, and I felt these kids should have the same opportunity,” said Adkins, the youngest of four.

Her father worked for United Parcel Service for nearly three decades and retired as a district manager. Her mother was a seamstress who taught dressmaking skills.

Adkins said she originally planned to major in business at the University of Virginia with dreams of making money to open her own school for inner-city children.

Instead, she ended up leaving Charlottesville with a degree in communications and a minor in history and embarking on an education career in private schools.

Her resume includes stints as director of special programs at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pa.; upper-school counselor at the Breck School in Minneapolis; and upper-school dean at Sidwell Friends School in Washington. For the last five years, she has been an assistant principal at Friends Seminary in New York.

“I have very strong credentials in this type of work,” Adkins said. “If I would have met Stephen Girard in today’s time, I think he would have an understanding that times have changed.”


Written by Symphony

March 16, 2009 at 12:52 pm

2 Responses

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  1. This women is the worst thing that ever happen to this school. The Kids spirit is down and the staff as well no one want to be there anymore

    Teresa Baptiste

    October 29, 2010 at 10:06 pm

  2. is a good place to start.

    A Hummer's View

    March 28, 2012 at 11:37 am

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