by Clark Groome
Priscilla G. Sands, Ed.D., became Springside School’s head of school in 1996. At the time, she said in a recent interview, Springside’s biggest challenge was the enrollment that had taken a hit when Penn Charter had become coed.
During her tenure Springside rebounded impressively, renovated much of its campus on Cherokee Street and, most significantly, merged with neighboring Chestnut Hill Academy in 2011.
Springside and CHA had a coordinate program for Upper School students dating back to 1966 and had been cooperating in many ways since the girls’ school moved to its present location in 1959.
Sands, 67, is leaving Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) where she has served as president since the merger. Her time at Springside and SCH was what she termed “the happiest 19 years of my life.”
“I’ve loved being here in spite of everything,” she said. “This has been my dream job.”
With the merged institution thriving, she said, when the opportunity presented itself, she accepted the Marlborough School in Los Angeles’ call to be its new head of school starting July 1.
Acknowledging that the Springside/CHA merger had not always been easy – many people questioned whether or not it was the right thing for both schools – she said, “time is healing the rift.”
“My time frame [at SCH] was never going to be long, but I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t leaving the school in such a volatile place that it could erupt,” she added.
She’s confident the local school is strong and in good hands. She noted with particular pride that the school’s students were happy and productive in the classroom, on the athletic fields and in the many extra-curricular activities they are offered.
“Our Upper School enrollment numbers are great,” she said. “Kids who come to the school who know no history love it. The parents of Lower School kids came for the program and love what’s happening.”
Sands grew up in an independent school family. Her mother, Adele Sands, taught and administered at the Agnes Irwin School for many years, ultimately serving as its headmistress from 1981 to 1985.
Priscilla graduated from Agnes Irwin in 1965 and later earned a B.F.A. in theater with a concentration on dramaturgy from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. from Villanova, and her doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania.
She began her teaching career at Agnes Irwin in 1985. After several years in the classroom she realized that she liked being an administrator and, after five years as Agnes Irwin’s assistant head of school, decided she wanted to head her own school. The consultant with whom she worked put her name into some searches that year. Springside hired her. She’s been there ever since.
When history is written about Sands’ time in Chestnut Hill it’s likely that the focus will be on the merger of two long-standing single-sex schools. She said that when she arrived at Springside, even though the two schools were coordinate in the upper two grades and had some joint business functions, “We were two separate schools.”
Her counterpart at CHA for most of her time at Springside and at SCH was Frank Steel, CHA’s Upper School head when she arrived and its headmaster beginning in 2002.
“Frank and I found it easier to meet on common ground because of our backgrounds,” she said. “We both came from school families. We both were products of single-sex schools. We both were steeped in it.”
While the board was looking for ways to bring synergy to the two schools’ business operations, she said, “it became clear to Frank and to me that if we are asking those questions [then] why aren’t we asking the questions about education?”
“Our kids viewed themselves as going to two different schools,” she said. “The faculty viewed it as two different schools. We had to stop competing with each other. It was such an incredible waste of time and energy. It was silly.
“Frank and I wanted to control the merger through an academic lens, not just putting it together for financial reasons. The board, to their credit, allowed us to do that.”
When Steel left SCH a year ago to take the reins at the Gulliver Schools in Coral Gables, Fla., he said, “I have a really deep respect for [Priscilla] as a thinker and an educator.”
Since the recent SCH graduations were the last ones to be single sex (the boys and girls will graduate together beginning next June), Sands invited Steel back for last week’s boys’ commencement to speak and give out the diplomas to kids he had known for all but the last of their years in the school.
“At the graduation,” Steel said, “I noted that Priscilla’s two greatest qualities were that she was always thoughtful about what schools should do, why they should do it, and how; and that during all her years at SCH she cared equally for the boys and the girls. She was a great educational colleague for all those years. After all the ups and downs and difficult work we did together, she is my friend.”
When he announced Sands’ resignation in March, SCH Board Chairman Dick Hayne wrote, “Priscilla has assembled a remarkable group of dedicated faculty and administrators who embrace her vision for 21st century education – experimental learning and problem solving in a team setting. One outstanding example of this vision has been the launch of the highly acclaimed Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. From academia to the media to the business community, SCH has received well-earned accolades for this program.”
That program will now be named in Sands’ honor. The Priscilla G. Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Endowed Fund has been established, according to SCH Academy board and academic leaders, to keep the school and its students in the forefront of 21st century educational leadership.
Sands was thrilled with the honor and said that while she’s looking forward to the opportunities and challenges she’ll face at Marlborough, what she’ll miss most about SCH is the kids. Those students, from their comments and actions over the last few weeks, will also miss her – a person they feel has been primarily an advocate for their welfare.
“Priscilla has said on numerous occasions that her primary goal for the school,” Hayne wrote, “was to have it a ‘happy place’ where the students could have fun while engaged in rigorous learning. She clearly has accomplished that goal.
“I offer my deep appreciation for the profound and lasting contributions she has made to our school and to the community.”