PHILADELPHIA — The private boarding school for underprivileged students now led by Autumn Adkins, who describes herself simply as “a black girl from Richmond, Virginia,” would have excluded her in years past.
The one-time white boys-only institution in Philadelphia did not admit its first black student until 1968 — and that was only after numerous legal challenges, months of protests, a visit from Martin Luther King Jr. and a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. Girls weren’t allowed until 1984.
Girard College — a misnomer, as it serves first- through 12th-graders — has come a long way since being established by the richest man you never heard of. And as its newest president, the 37-year-old Adkins is determined to take it further, raising the school’s profile by giving its students “a true 21st-century education.”
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“I have been really putting a lot of energy around making school exciting,” Adkins said. “It needs to be engaging. I’ve said to several of my administrators, I don’t want teachers wasting kids’ time — they’re young. It’s just not fair.”
Stephen Girard, a French-born sea captain, amassed a fortune through shipping, trading and banking after coming to Philadelphia in 1776. He helped the U.S. finance the War of 1812 and, when he died in 1831, was likely the wealthiest man in America.
Girard left about $6 million (approximately $146 million in today’s money) to the city of Philadelphia, mostly to build and endow a tuition-free school for poor, fatherless white boys. The “college” opened in 1848 and, until now, had been run exclusively by white men. Its first president was Benjamin Franklin’s great-grandson.
The school’s overseers were not looking to make history after the most recent president retired. But they were bowled over by Adkins’ enthusiasm, work ethic, rigorous standards and an impressive resume that includes degrees from the University of Virginia and Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“She is highly intelligent, she is highly driven, she is extremely communicative,” said Peter Shoemaker, chairman of the board of managers. “She has evolved a very clear vision for the school.”
Raised in an upper-middle class Virginia suburb, Adkins’ passion for education was inspired in part by teenage volunteer work in poor neighborhoods. She was struck by the narrow life experiences of the children there, and later wrote in a college application that she dreamed of starting a boarding school for underprivileged students.
Girard is the realization of that dream.
Following high-level posts at the elite Friends Seminary School in New York and Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., Adkins arrived last summer at Girard’s 43-acre campus.
The school looks like a slice of New England in rough North Philadelphia: Students in blue and burgundy blazers stroll grassy quads amid stone buildings, playing fields and a soaring chapel. The grandly columned Founder’s Hall — the original school building — was planned by Thomas Ustick Walter, who designed the dome of the U.S. Capitol.
Yet Girard’s imposing walls and entrance gate became symbols of segregation when trustees refused to admit African-American students. Local activists picketed for months outside the school in 1965; King visited that August, declaring “the walls of segregation would come tumbling down.” In 1968, they did.
Today, most of Girard’s 620 students are black and half are female; all come from low-income families headed by a single parent or guardian. Students are selected based on an assessment test, family interview and, if older than first grade, an academic transcript.
Adkins — the descendant of a slave — believes Stephen Girard would support diversity and that the restrictions in his will, which she has read, simply reflect the era in which he lived.
The new civil rights struggle, she says, is to make urban education competitive with its suburban peer.
To that end, Adkins plans to broaden the curriculum, modernize the facilities and increase teacher salaries. She also wants to better prepare students for life outside the walls; while nearly all Girard students are accepted to college, less than half get a degree in six years, school officials say.
The school’s $25 million annual budget comes almost entirely from the Girard estate’s securities, real estate and mining investments, which suffered during the recession. Financial records show the trust’s value dropped from $309 million in 2008 to $204 million last year, prompting Adkins to launch aggressive fundraising plans.
“I do have real concerns,” Adkins said. “Will we be able to educate as many children as we should be?”
The new president is a vibrant presence on campus, doling out hugs, handshakes and banter. She hosts small groups of students at the president’s house for “family” meals — a chance for Adkins to know them better, and to expose them to sit-down dinners they may not get at home.
“I’ve learned an enormous amount from the students,” Adkins said. “They’re interesting, they’re thoughtful, they’re inquisitive — they deserve the kind of education that complements that.”
Sophomore Olayinka Lawal said when she first saw a picture of Adkins last year, she was most struck by the new president being young and female. That Adkins is black was almost an afterthought, Lawal said, coming as it did the same year Barack Obama became the nation’s first African-American president.
“It just fit perfectly, it really did,” she said. “It was like, wow, what a mirror!”