by Pete Mazzaccaro
At Germantown Friends School, tradition requires the head of school to open upper and middle school with an assembly. It’s an opportunity to start the year off with a theme, a big message that can inspire and guide students through another academic year.
For the first time in 20 years, however, that opening assembly was conducted by someone other than Dick Wade, the man who had guided the venerable Germantown Quaker school for a generation. It was conducted by Dana Okeson Weeks, who was hired last November to replace the retired Wade.
When returning students entered the assembly they heard Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In the Wall” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “If I Had a Hammer.”
Okeson Weeks, an Overbrook native who returned to Philadelphia this summer after more 23 years as a teacher and administrator at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s School, wanted to start her GFS tenure with a powerful message.
“I struggled for weeks to figure out what I was going to talk with these kids about,” she said in an interview last week. “I didn’t want to just say, ‘Have a nice year.'”
Her message instead? The one that stuck: “I charged them with the task of creating in our community a microcosm of what you want the world to be,” she said. “The phrase that seems to have stuck is : Diversity breeds dissent and dissent breeds change.”
“I was afraid to use the “D” word,” she added, laughing. Indeed, promoting dissent doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of a head administrator. “But I believe it.”
For Okeson Weeks, putting the students at the center of their education experience is everything. It was that quality, she said, that attracted her to the school and prompted her to apply for the job last year, even though she was not actively looking to leave St. Ann’s, where she had risen from science teacher to department head to head of upper school.
“GFS was always one of these schools I knew of as being a liberal, progressive, student-centered school with faculty who were really experts in their field,” she said “It is very much in line with the St. Ann’s model. Some of the faculty I’ve worked with from GFS were among the most interesting I’ve ever worked with. GFS kept coming back to me as one of the places I had respect for.”
When the job opened up in September, Okeson Weeks was interested but busy with the start of the school year. Finally, after being prodded several months later by her husband, Bill Weeks, she decided to apply.
“I called the headhunter and he said, ‘It’s a little late,'” she said. “I asked when the deadline was and he said he’d give me until 11 a.m. the next day. I whipped together a resume in a day and spent all my time writing my educational philosophy. I really pulled an all-nighter putting that together. I just wanted to come here. Even if it was to just have a look around.
“I wasn’t sitting around waiting for this job to open. I wasn’t looking to leave St. Ann’s. I applied nowhere else. I would not have left that school to just be the head of any school.”
So in July, Okeson Weeks, her husband and her 15-year-old daughter moved to Fairmount from Brooklyn.
“I’m getting to know Fairmount,” she said. “It doesn’t feel very different for me.”
The family’s new home, however, is a different story.
“The house needs a full renovation,” she said. “It’s like we’re camping indoors.”
In a way, the move to Philadelphia brings her nearly full circle. Having grown up in the city, Okeson Weeks attended Our Lady of Lourdes Parish School at 63rd Street and Lancaster Avenue, which closed recently, and Merion Mercy Academy for high school.
Heading into college, however, she was not set on science or teaching.
“I wasn’t always obvious to me that I wanted to be a biology teacher,” she said. I never really thought of myself as a science person but as a philosophy- theology major.”
But career prospects steered her away from philosophy.
“I always loved bio and chemistry,” she said. “Perhaps it was because I loved my teachers. So I thought I’d do that.”
After attending the University of Scranton, where she majored in biology, she had had her fill of science and went to Villanova for a master’s in philosophy. While teaching philosophy as an adjunct at Villanova, a student of hers who was teaching at a private school suggested Independent Educational Services (IES) as a way she could find work as a teacher.
“So I was moving to New York City, and I needed to get a job,” she said. “It cost more money than I was making to take the train back and forth to Villanova, so I thought, ‘I should apply to IES.’ I had a form where I filled out all the classes I had taken, which was a lot of biology and chemistry and they said, ‘Oh, you want to be a science teacher.’
“I went on interviews at a number of Manhattan schools, and St. Ann’s was the most compelling. They wanted me to teach science. I started teaching and remembered, ‘Oh, that is what I like about science.'”
It was the beginning of a long career as a teacher. Even when Okeson Weeks moved into administration roles, she continued to teach. It’s something all administrators do at St Ann’s.
At GFS, however, she will not be teaching. It was a reality of her new job that did not sink in until her first week of school.
“I was in meeting for worship … I started looking at the trees and I thought ‘Look at all the rubisco out there,’ which is an enzyme that captures carbon dioxide, and I thought, ‘I can’t wait to get to class and tell this to the kids,'” she said. “And I thought ,’Oh my God. This is the first time in 28 years that I’m not teaching.'”
It’s not something, she added, that will be permanent.
“I would love to get back into teaching,” she said. “It won’t be this year, but I hope next year there’s a way to teach something.”
Otherwise, her first weeks on the job have been positive.
“It has been reaffirming and reassuring, she said. “My first week in July was the same. By the end of the week I was so overcome with relief. I now feel so comfortable with the people I’ve met here. I’m having a similar experience now with all the students back on campus. This is the school for me. It’s very exciting.”
What’s most exciting, too, she said is the fact that she is now in a school environment where kids are front and center. St Ann’s School, despite its Episcopalian roots, is a non religious school.
“I admire Germantown Friends School for the education and the programs and the relationship between teachers and students,” she said. “What convinced me to take the job and move here is that after 20 or so odd years where conversations about values and commitment to community was something that didn’t happen – we didn’t talk about morals – having the opportunity to come here and have that, that’s the draw.”