New leader wants to give elite Philly private school ‘public purpose’

With roots that date to the late 17th century, the prestigious Friends Select private school in Center City has watched the city around it change drastically over 300 or so years. Now the school’s newest leader wants it to engage more deeply with the Philadelphia outside its walls.

Michael Gary will be officially installed as Friends Select’s head of school on Thursday (though he’s been on the job since July). Gary is among a small handful of African-Americans at the top of Philly’s elite private school world. He’s not only aware of that fact, he’s made it central to his vision at the small school of 570 students. He chose Friends Select precisely because it’s located in a big city where he has a chance to reach more kids like him.

“What I’m trying to do at Friends Select is make it more accessible,” Gary said.

Friends Select’s size and cost — tuition ranges between $21,000 and $34,000 a year –limit the school’s reach. But Gary wants to create more low-cost summer programs that can open doors to more city students.

The summer programs, he said, can give kids a “taste” of the education Friends Select provides the other nine months of the year. Gary also wants to attract more public schools teachers to lead the summer programs, so the school can become a conduit for new and innovative instructional techniques.

“A private institution with a public purpose, that’s what I’m trying to instill here,” Gary said.

Gary is the youngest of six raised by a single mother in the housing projects of New Haven, Connecticut.

“I grew up in the section where they tell the Yale students — at least back in the day –not to go,” he said.

When he was 15, Gary earned admission to the Pomfret School, an elite boarding academy in rural Connecticut. He credits Pomfret for changing his life, eventually putting him on the track to college and a burgeoning career as an ad man.

Eventually he blended education and advertising by working in private school admissions. His last stop before Friends Select was Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

“I wanted to come back and reciprocate, basically, and give back to a city and hopefully find other Michaels out there who are looking for opportunities,” he said.

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