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Prince Edward To Visit Girard College, Philadelphia Boarding School For Low-Income Students

By KATHY MATHESON 04/25/12 02:36 PM ET AP

Prince Edward

PHILADELPHIA -- When the future King Edward VII visited Girard College in 1860, the boarding school for underprivileged students served about 860 white boys in a bucolic setting on the edge of bustling Philadelphia.

That is not the institution that the British monarch's great-great-grandson will see on Thursday.

Now educating a much smaller and racially diverse student population of boys and girls, Girard is a cloistered slice of serenity amid a gritty neighborhood in the heart of the city.

Yet it remains dedicated to its mission of educating low-income students even as the school itself struggles financially. It's also facing a change in leadership as its dynamic young president, Autumn Adkins Graves, steps down at the end of June.

But first, Graves will welcome Prince Edward, who will plant a tree to honor the Diamond Jubilee of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, now in her 60th year on the throne. Edward's great-great-grandfather planted two trees at the school 152 years ago.

The prince also will visit with students from Girard and several other local schools who participate in a youth development program started by his father, the Duke of Edinburgh. It's all part of his tour of the United States, which includes stops in New York, Chicago and Birmingham, Ala.

"It's exciting. We'll have all of our students involved," Graves said. "We've ordered a lot of British flags."

Despite its name, Girard is not a college. The private school, which teaches first through 12th grades, offers free tuition, housing and meals to students primarily from single-parent families. It was founded in 1848 with a bequest from Philadelphia financier Stephen Girard.

Twelve years later, it was honored with a royal visit by the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII. A plaque on campus points to a pair of large horse chestnut trees as tokens of his trip. Records also indicate he climbed to the top of the school's grandly columned Founders Hall to get an aerial view of Philadelphia, whereupon a gust of wind blew away his hat.

The school has undergone tremendous change since then, including the admission of minority and female students previously not covered by Girard's will. Officials also made a historic choice in selecting Graves as president in 2009.

Until then, the institution had been run exclusively by white men. But Graves, who happens to be black and female, won over Girard's board of managers with impressive credentials and intellect, an outgoing personality and clear vision for the school.

"The spirit when she came on board was exhilarating," said Tony Schiavo, a 1959 graduate and past president of the alumni association.

Yet Graves said in an interview last week that her ambitions for Girard were almost immediately curtailed by the effects of the recession. The school's budget is largely funded by income from the estate, a contribution that dropped from $23.6 million in 2008 to $19.5 million this year.

The financial troubles led to nearly two dozen layoffs – what Graves called "the greatest agony of my time here" – and an enrollment drop from 620 in 2010 to 465 today.

Some alumni have complained about her leadership, criticism Graves said has been based more on emotion than facts. Students develop an unusually fierce attachment to Girard because it's their home and their school, and that can make it harder to accept change, she said.

She pointed to success in raising Girard's profile through local partnerships with universities and community organizations; Vice President Joe Biden visited for a service day in January. Graves also is proud of new academic programs in robotics, fitness, science, technology, engineering and math.

Her two fundraising galas broke school records, including one this month that grossed $523,000. After expenses, the more than $400,000 being returned to the school will be used to fill a hole in this year's budget, she said.

When Graves arrived at Girard, she had expected most fundraising would help "take us to the next level."

"And what I quickly learned ... is that that fundraising is going to be a part of what keeps the lights on," she said.

Graves described her tenure as exciting, hard, exhausting and rewarding. She's stepping down on June 30 for family reasons; her husband, whom she married in 2010, works in New York. She also wants to pursue a doctorate.

Girard officials say it will be a while before the 164-year-old school is out of the financial woods. But the plan has always been to slowly reduce the institution's operating costs so estate investments can recover and get healthier, said Kevin Feeley, an alumnus and spokesman for the Board of City Trusts, a municipal agency that oversees Stephen Girard's fortune.

The school will grow again, he said.

"The board thinks about these decisions in terms of 100 years from now, because the goal is to continue to operate the school in perpetuity, forever," Feeley said.

Long enough, perhaps, for Prince Edward's great-great-grandson to plant a tree.

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