Ellis School names Robin O. Newham to top job

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As an art teacher at The Ellis School for 15 years, Robin O. Newham was beloved among her students.

As director of Ellis' Upper School for 17 years, she was respected and admired by the students, staff and parents.

Now Mrs. Newham will have the opportunity to use her abilities to manage and inspire others at a higher level as the new head of school for Ellis, a position whose daunting duties include increasing enrollment, endowment and scholarship funding at the city's only independent private school for girls.

Mrs. Newham, 60, of Penn Hills was announced as the new top administrator at the Shadyside school Wednesday morning to students and staff shortly after they arrived for the day.

The Ellis board of trustees had planned to conduct a nationwide search to replace A. Randol "Randi" Benedict, the former head of school, who resigned abruptly in September, just four weeks into the new school year.

Mrs. Newham had been named interim head when Ms. Benedict resigned. In September, trustees would not comment on the reason for Ms. Benedict's departure and said they would search for a new leader while Mrs. Newham ran the school on an interim basis.

However, trustee Charlie Humphrey said it took "less than a month" for board members to realize that the perfect candidate to become the next permanent head of Ellis was right under their noses.

"I would say she exceeded my expectations for what anyone could have done in that period of time. She was preparing documents that showed where our priorities needed to be. We need to do a better job at retention and recruitment," Mr. Humphrey said.

Once the idea was raised to offer the permanent leadership job to Mrs. Newham, "there was not a single person on the board who wanted to look outside for a candidate," Mr. Humphrey said.

Colleen Simonds, of New York, a 1995 Ellis graduate and now a trustee, said both the board and Mrs. Newham initially thought her role would be interim.

"She is the first person to say that this job was not even on her radar," Mrs. Simonds said. "But she's just done an incredible job at a moment's notice and the atmosphere at the school is so positive."

Mrs. Newham said she is "thrilled and privileged" to be named to lead Ellis.

"I devoted many years to this school because I love it and because I am energized by the students at every turn," she said.

But she knows her work is cut out for her. Current enrollment of about 400 from pre-K through grade 12 marks a 13.5 percent decrease from 2009 and the school posted a $775,000 deficit in its $12.4 million budget for 2010-11, according to IRS forms. Its endowment, however, which had tanked during the economic meltdown of 2008-09 as did that of other private schools, is now back to a healthy $26 million to $27 million.

Increasing enrollment and finding scholarship money with which to recruit students will be her No. 1 priority, she said. "I know I only have half of the population to draw from," Mrs. Newham said.

Trustees did not specify how long Mrs. Newham's term would last but said there are no limits at this time. "She may retire at 65, she may retire at 70. A lot of that is going to be up to her," Mr. Humphrey said.

In the meantime, those associated with the school say they are pleased with Mrs. Newham's appointment.

"Everyone loves her," said Nepheli Raptus, 17, a senior. "She took a lot of time to get to know us individually."

Kristen Kalson, of Fox Chapel, former president of the Ellis Parents Association, called Mrs. Newham "an excellent leader" who is "beloved to the girls and respected by the faculty and the parents."

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com. First Published December 18, 2013 8:43 AM

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