AIS: Girls First
More homecoming than arrival, Sally Keidel’s installation as Agnes Irwin’s 14th Head of School was given the final seal with her Convocation on October 16. The audience included students and teachers watching from homerooms, families throughout the 84 zip codes the School serves, and alumnae nationwide and beyond—reflecting the universal embrace Keidel has felt.
“It’s been a real AIS welcome,” she acknowledges. “I couldn’t have asked for more—and in some ways, I didn’t expect less, because it’s who we are and how deeply connected we are. If the past six months have reminded us of anything, it’s that Agnes Irwin is a community that goes beyond place.”
Returning to a home of opportunities
Over nearly three decades in college preparatory education, from classrooms to administrative positions, one tenure stands out to Sally Keidel as perhaps the most influential. “My first job at AIS, as director of admissions, changed how I think about leadership, education, and opportunities for girls,” she says, referencing a seven-year stint, beginning in 2007. “I came to realize my experience ran parallel to the girls. The School helps us all be the best versions of ourselves.”
Already coming from a landmark position as the first female admission director for a historically all-boys school, Keidel credits AIS with then preparing her to become the first woman to lead Montgomery School in Chester Springs. But she never lost sight of what sets AIS apart. This understanding has now brought her full circle. “Agnes Irwin became a part of me because I was able to see the mission happening in girls,” reflects Keidel. “Working in admissions, you have a unique lens. You are witness to a girl’s journey.
“You see a child as she arrives and then watch her develop her own voice and confidence. Her readiness to jump in, try things, and take risks. The rapport she finds with faculty and its benefits. Here more than at most schools, adults see possibilities the girls may not see in themselves.”
Tailoring a learning community expressly for girls
Acting on girls’ potential is an AIS community effort, one Keidel is eager to lead into the future. The faculty — working with School leaders such as the I-Team, which focuses on innovative pedagogy — continually develop and pilot courses and programs.
Each new idea responds to what girls need to motivate their learning and engagement, often undergirded by field-tested research and the input of the Center for the Advancement of Girls, an on-campus thinktank.
One new idea Keidel relished seeing on her return was the Small World Initiative®, a Yale University microbiology project. AIS is one of only a handful of high schools nationwide, along with several hundred colleges, using a specially-tailored Microbiology course to collect and analyze samples in search of new strains of bacteria to combat antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The girls are enthusiastic about the experience, and relish learning and contributing to scientific knowledge at the same time.
“We know girls learn differently than boys,” Keidel explains. “They do better and are more engaged when they can see the impact of what they’re doing in a lab or classroom play out in the world in order to be genuinely invested in the work. An all-girls school equipped with this insight can have a real impact on the gender gap in STEM education and graduate more of tomorrow’s science leaders.”
While Keidel gradually reconnects with girls she knows and gets to know those she doesn’t, she spends the most time with one student: a sixth-grader re-entering AIS for the first time since pre-K. “It’s been so interesting watching my daughter and seeing her start to amplify her voice in a new way. As a society, we need women who are comfortable and confident sitting at the table and using their voices, not sitting back and waiting to be asked to speak. This is exactly why Agnes Irwin puts girls first—and why we always will.”
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