Girard College, the storied Philadelphia boarding school, has a new president.
Heather Deneen Wathington, CEO of a Washington nonprofit that operates charter schools for struggling teens, will begin running Girard — which offers a free college prep education to poor children from single-parent homes — on Aug. 1.
Wathington, 48, succeeds Clarence "Clay" Armbrister, who served as Girard's president for five years before leaving in December to become president of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C.
The Board of Directors of City Trusts announced Wathington's hiring Thursday.
Bernard W. Smalley, vice president of the board and chair of the search committee, said Wathington stood out in a crowded applicant pool.
"She hits all of the right bases that we need," Smalley said. "She's a Ph.D., she's a teacher, she's a researcher."
Girard College, centered on an imposing structure and set on 43 acres in North Philadelphia, educates about 300 students in first through 12th grades. They live on campus during the week. Every member of its most recent graduating class has enrolled in a four-year college, Smalley said.
It was founded in 1848, years after Stephen Girard, the banker and merchant, left money in his will to begin a boarding school. Through the years, courts have intervened to change the nature of the school, which Girard intended to "educate poor, white, male orphans."
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the school integrated in 1965. A lawsuit later opened it to girls. And the mission has been amended to include "functional orphans" from single-parent homes.
For the past five years, Wathington has led the See Forever Foundation and the Maya Angelou Schools, both aimed at helping helping young people who have encountered difficulties succeed in college and careers.
Prior to that, she was an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, where her research focused on barriers to success in post-secondary education and the factors that lead to success in college.
In an interview, Wathington said she has always been interested in helping students who have been "traditionally underserved" by education. "There are so many challenges that we have … How do we teach a generation of learners to be flexible thinkers, to be open and have a nimbleness of mind?" she said.
Wathington holds a bachelor's degree from Wellesley College, a master's from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She grew up in Monmouth County, N.J., where she attended public schools.
She comes to campus as Girard regains its footing after a struggling stretch. In recent years, the board that runs it had sought court permission to temporarily end the boarding and high school programs to cut costs. A judge denied that petition, ruling both were crucial to Stephen Girard's vision. The school's finances are now in better shape, officials said.
"We are moving from a period of sustainability to a period of vitality," Smalley said. "Taking us to the next level, increasing our student body, increasing diversity within our student body — it is clear that Dr. Wathington is the person to next lead Girard College."