DR. AUTUMN GRAVES is the Head of School at Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The all-girls private school of about 600 students provides a platform for young women to grow into leadership roles through academics, extracurricular activities and athletics.
Born in western Pennsylvania, Dr. Graves grew up in Richmond, Virginia, graduated from the University of Virginia in 1994, and has lived everywhere from Richmond to New York. Despite her initial intention to attend business school to become a player agent, Dr. Graves entered the world of education in which she has worked for the past 20 years. Dr. Graves has been at Girls Preparatory School for one school year, building on the school’s more than 100-year-old history of women’s achievement.
Girls Preparatory School was founded in 1906 by Tommie Payne Duffy, Eula Lee Jarnagin and Grace McCallie in McCallie’s home. The trio aimed to prepare young girls for college and was an early advocate for girls’ athletics. Dr. Graves, only the second female full-time Head of School since 1966, embraces the tradition, encouraging the school’s young women to embrace change and take risks, steering students into leadership roles within the community in order to develop experienced and empowered female leaders.
Heather O’Reilly: Tell me about the school that you’re working at now.
Dr. Autumn Graves: It’s called Girls Preparatory School but everyone in town calls it GPS. This is the only place where if you say GPS it does not mean global positioning system; it’s very odd. It’s about 600 girls. We’re very much into preparing girls to be leaders. It’s about the mind and body experience that’s very good for us. About 10 percent of our girls go on to play at the next level in athletics. Our girls’ soccer team is the state champion.
HO: That’s very cool. So how do you like the all-girls atmosphere verses the mix that you get at other schools?
AG: I think there’s a prominence that happens [at GPS], and a silliness. They’re just really playful. I have some girls that skip around campus to class. And there’s not that feeling that people are keeping their eyes on you all the time.
It’s also really fun because every leader is a girl so there’s not a case of , ‘Oh, I lost out to a boy to be Student Body President.’ What I like is that our girls, especially our younger ones, can see so many different kinds of leaders; and that they’re all girls but they’re so diverse. That’s really neat.
HO: And they figure out what’s true to themselves. You can grow from other people and learn from other people but you don’t have to be just like everybody else.
AG: You see this crowd and it’s a homey feel. This game sold out like that (snaps) because people want to have those community experiences. There are really smart people, very progressive. This is a big bastion of entrepreneurship; Coca Cola bottling was founded here. That concept to bottle it was here, and that’s how you make the money. Gold Bond powder? Here. All the carpet probably in your house? Here. It’s this really entrepreneurial, interesting mix, and it’s fun. They’re nice people, they’re not pretentious. When people talk to you they want to know how you’re doing and who you are.
HO: Do you think any of the girls from your school will be at the game tomorrow?
AG: Without a question they will be here.
Dr. Autumn Graves speaks with a group of her students from Girls Preparatory School ahead of the U.S. WNT's Victory Tour match against Costa Rica at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn.
HO: And when they see you, will they be excited to see you or will they be like ‘Oooh!?’ What’s your style? Authoritarian or…?
AG: They laugh at me a lot.
HO: A good mix! One of respect but…
AG: Last year was my first year, and I showed up pregnant so we had some funny moments where it was like, ‘I can’t walk that far, you have to slow down.’ They’re really sweet. I think it’s also fun because they know me as the head of the school and they call me Dr. Graves but then they also see me with my son and they’re like, ‘Wait, you’re giggling and laughing with him.’ That’s really nice for them to see. My husband comes over and plays four-square with the middle schoolers, so they see that side of us too.
HO: I was an education major at North Carolina, so I worked in a seventh grade classroom for a couple of months to finish out my education degree. Social studies was my focus. English was sort of my second subject. I had a lot of fun. I taught this unit on South Africa. I’ll always remember that.
AG: Do you think you’ll ever [go back to teaching]?
HO: Yeah, I love working with young people, it’s just in which avenue. I’ve been given so much through soccer. I see soccer in my life in coaching and maybe in my camps and clinics, but I love working with schools as well, so we’ll see which route it goes.
AG: It’s great to see how athletics can really make a difference in a kid’s life. You watch their confidence grow, their leadership, their risk-taking. Yesterday, we opened school, and so I talked to them about failing forward, about how you have to take those risks. I think athletics is really one of those places where you take a lot of risks and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t but you always get up and keep going.
HO: I always tell the girls that I work with, too, I’m sort of the work horse, the work ethic bringing it every single session but skill-wise, you know, I’ve improved but people can always rely on me for that. I always try to tell the girls, especially 11 through 14, that it’s really cool to try hard, because at that age it’s kind of like, ‘Why are you brown-nosing,’ or ‘Why are you such a go-hard in gym class’ or whatever. And I’m just like, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you it’s not cool to just really go for it!’
AG: I love that because in an all-girls environment that is cool. They girls tell me, ‘It’s cool to be a nerd at our school. It’s cool to work hard. It’s cool to answer the questions in class.’ And when the kids don’t do that, they’re kind of like, ‘What’s up?’
HO: That’s really cool to develop that culture; hats off to you guys.
AG: Thanks. We’ve been doing it for 110 years.
HO: That’s really neat. I wish I went to that school. I wound up okay, though.
AG: Yeah, I think it’s working out for you.