5 questions for Dana J. Okeson, Germantown Friends’ next Head of School

When Dana J. Okeson takes over as Germantown Friends’ head of school on July 15, 2013, she will become the first female to hold that position at GFS since 1869.

Okeson grew up in Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood and holds degrees from the University of Scranton and Villanova University.

She comes from Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY, which the GFS search committee referred to as “one of the nation’s leading independent schools, noted for progressive educational practices and high academic standards.”

NewsWorks caught up with an affable, excited and humbled Okeson  on Monday afternoon to discuss, among other things, her vision for GFS, her message for the community and what to expect when she takes over for retiring Head of School Dick Wade.

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NewsWorks: Why did you seek the Head of School position at Germantown Friends?

Dana J. Okeson: “I have a great job here, at a place I really love, but Germantown Friends was a school that I admired from afar when I was growing up in the Philadelphia area. It was where the hip, smart, edgy students went.

“When the opening was announced early last year, some friends told me about it. It finally got to the point that I told myself I just can’t let this opportunity pass. It’s the only school I’d be interested in going to. I was not looking for any other jobs. I’m extremely happy at St. Ann’s School, but it’s so comparable that I was compelled to apply.

“Gosh, I had no idea [if I thought I would get the job]. It could have been that I was not what they were looking for. I’m opinionated and not shy, passionate about what I do. If they wanted a really conservative, tried-and-true fundraising type, that is not necessarily me.”

NW: What is your vision for GFS’ future?

DJO: “That’s still in a formative stage. It would be brazen to go in and just say ‘We’re going to do x, y and z’ without talking with the faculty, the students, the parents, the school committee. Their input would guide me toward informed opinions.

“Everything is working very well [at GFS], but what can we amplify, what should we play up and play down? I have some ideas, but I don’t want to put them down on paper just yet.”

NW: It’s quite noteworthy that you will be the first female head of Germantown Friends School since America’s Reconstruction Era. How does that make you feel?

DJO: “I think there’s more to it than that. The school and search committees were going to find the person who would best serve the school. Gender was just a matter of consequence. They were not looking for particular gender.

“It’s fantastic, though, as I haven’t worked with female heads of school. I’ve worked with males, who have been great. It’s excellent, as a woman, that I will help lead and guide the school as head of Germantown Friends, and I feel the burden of responsibility, as a woman, to bring all of my talents and skills to the job. I want to do a good job.”

NW: What is your message for the GFS community?

DJO: “This is a really humbling appointment, and one that I will do my absolute best to serve in the capacity they’ve asked me to. It’s an honor beyond words.

“They already have an amazing school community, and I am hoping it’s only going to get better.

“It’s an interesting, intellectually stimulated community; academically challenging. Nothing is broken there. It’s all working well. I hope they are open to working with me to make it the best it can be. When I was there, it felt so like I was at home, among like-minded people.”

NW: What is your message for the surrounding community in Germantown and beyond?

DJO: “With the neighboring communities, and I’ve heard this from many members of the school community, it is imperative to have a greater reach in Germantown specifically.

“Fighting for what is best for the community is really exciting. That’s slightly unexplored, too, but something I’m really looking forward to. Specifically, finding new ways to broaden our scope and reach out to the community as Germantown Friends. Academically, that may entail partnering with other institutions, building new relationships.

“Quakers are a simple people, but they did not get a very simple person in me!”

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