"My name is Autumn Joy Adkins Graves, and I am the seventh head of Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I proudly proclaim – I will lead like a girl!" With those words at the conclusion of her installation as GPS’s Head of School, the audience of friends, family, faculty, trustees, parents, alumnae, and students rose to their feet and offered their heartfelt affection and appreciation in a loud and lengthy ovation.
Alternately described as a joyous occasion, historic event, and new chapter in the school’s history, the installation ceremony on Thursday was all of those things, said officials. Chair of the Search Committee, Lizzer Graham ’77, welcomed the crowd and traced the steps of the head search, noting that they were seeking a person with a contagious passion for girls’ education and a deep and authentic love of learning.
Senior speaker Ragan Foley assured the new head that the students “cannot wait to share our school with you,” including the big things like the longstanding Honor Code and the little things such as the girls’ nickname for their uniforms, potato sacks.
After an a capella rendition of the song “Brave” by the GPS Singers, Dr. Graves was installed by Board Chair Chris Benz Smith ’72 and then introduced by longtime friend Bruce Stewart, the former head at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. Now a resident of Chattanooga, he said, “Your next head of school will be an example of excellence serving excellence.”
Using a phrase popularized by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Dr. Graves began her address by noting a “conspiracy of love,” acts of “strong enthusiasm and concern for the well-being of the students” that brought everyone together for “this particular moment.” She called the students “my girls,” and said, “I know that none of you would be here if there was not one person who has been a champion in your life…one, or an army of people who have been working together for the same result – to make sure you have a school experience that challenges your mind, body, and spirit to grow into the version of your best self.”
Dr. Graves traced her personal “conspiracy of love” through several generations of family members who had “intellectual power and work ethic,” and who “saw women as equal to men,” and then she reflected on the founders of GPS who created the school “because of their love or concern for the well-being of others.”
Among her stated ideas for the future of GPS are a recommitment to the ideals espoused by the founders, a partnership with parents to educate well-rounded and balanced young women, and a partnership with others to teach GPS girls and the girls of the Chattanooga community how to be social entrepreneurs that will “create solutions for education, health, economic, environmental and civic problems.” Dr. Graves also sees GPS as being a resource for alumnae, “a place where graduates can convene to discuss topics like health and wellness, personal finance, and how best to serve our communities.”
She called for supporting the faculty to be “nationally recognized educators” with a curriculum that is “just as innovative and transformative as the curriculum our founders designed” in their era. “GPS,” she said, “will be a leading voice in local, national, and global movements that will change the negative connotation of doing something like a girl into something that is positive and valued.”