Edes Gilbert spent fifteen years as headmistress of the prestigious Spence School, a community that includes many famous and influential graduates and parents. She has never forgotten, however, where she started out—teaching third grade in a public school. Since her retirement in 1998, Gilbert has dedicated herself to closing the gap between private and public education. “I’ve been so fortunate and the independent school world has been so good to me, I feel that the way I can give back is to work with public education, especially because I believe in closing this gap.”
Besides serving as a consultant to independent schools around the country, Gilbert devotes considerable time volunteering with Teach for America, the program that places recent college graduates as teachers in public schools. She also is on the board of the Theater Development Fund, helping to make culture affordable for public school students as part of building audiences for theater and dance.
“I’m really interested in public education where I started my own career, but what I’m intrigued about now is how teaching has changed,” she says. “I’m seeing it in the classroom in the South Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Content is no longer king. When you are dealing with children whose reading levels have such a wide range, you can’t start with the first grade reader. So how do you close the achievement gap? Until we figure this out, we’re crippling ourselves. So I’m very committed to that in terms of time.”
Gilbert’s depth and breadth of experience provides her with a unique perspective. While some educators lament the state of public education in the city, Gilbert is decidedly upbeat. “Actually New York City is one of the most advanced in terms of educational reform, but, of course, you never hear about all the good stuff; you hear the bad stuff,” she says, noting that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Stein are committed to the best possible education for all students. Through the Teach for America program, the city each year brings in young teachers who have “energy and a commitment to the kids.” This year, 35,000 college seniors applied for 3,500 spots in the national Teach for America program, including 11 percent of the graduating class at Harvard. “What these young teachers are doing is raising expectations, and that is a huge part of effective reform,” she says.
The benefits of Teach for America flow both ways. “The other side of this is the rising feeling of idealism,” she says. “Young people want to do something outside themselves. For many years, that idealism has not been there. Kids were more cynical.” Although a tight job market has undoubtedly pushed many kids into public service, others have been inspired by President Obama who speaks out about the importance of giving back. “It’s a good thing for our country to have young people committed to service of some kind.”
Gilbert first got involved with the Theater Development Fund while at Spence because the group, that runs the three TKTS booths in the city, provides affordable theater tickets for teachers. In all the schools, the organization brings together public school students with theater professionals. “High school students apply for an amazing opportunity to work with people like Meryl Streep and Frank Rich, who sponsor them, take them to the theater, and have conversations with them afterwards,” she says.
Gilbert’s expertise on independent schools takes her all over the country consulting on governance and strategic planning. Right now she is working with schools in Memphis and Philadelphia as well as New York City. The recession has affected most independent schools, but Gilbert feels the feelings in New York are more intense. “If the country has a cold we have pneumonia,” she says. In general she feels annual giving among independent schools is holding up pretty well, down maybe 8 to 10 percent, but that many capital campaigns have been postponed.
One day we meet to chat over tea at the Cosmopolitan Club. Gilbert has just come from a panel discussion on violence against women organized by the Wellesley Center for Women and held at the Yale Club. The topic obviously touched a nerve. “We have to teach girls to take care of themselves,” she says. Despite parental concerns about pedophiles stalking young people on the web, she notes, “Sexual violence is much more apt to come from people that they know.” Hardly a year would go by at Spence, she says, where there wasn’t an issue of violence against a student. A major challenge was building trust with the girls so they would feel comfortable talking to a teacher or someone with the school’s administration. Under the law Gilbert was required to report such instances. “I was impressed with the social services in New York,” she says. “They saw the family within 24 hours and sometimes, if appropriate, they would even remove the girl from the home temporarily.”
During her tenure at Spence, Gilbert became concerned with a culture that was becoming increasingly toxic, sending harmful messages to young girls. “Teen girls want to get attention but for a girl’s first sexual experience to be oral sex is sad.” She found parents often felt overwhelmed and helpless. She recalls speaking to a group of parents in the mid-90s about oral sex. “Parents didn’t have the vocabulary to talk to their children,” she says. “A number of them came up afterwards and said, `can I quote you?’”
As a member of the board of trustees for Parents in Action, Gilbert continues to raise the alarm. She feels that the sexually-charged culture is pushing girls to become sexual at younger and younger ages, hoping to attract the attention they want and need. “Girls at home doing homework are interested in getting the attention of the boys, so they `sext,’” she says, the shorthand for sending suggestive e-mails and photos. The girl will send a picture on her cell, perhaps one flashing her breasts, and in 10 minutes it’s all over the school. “She’s gotten herself into a situation she can’t control.”
Gilbert is a major proponent of media literacy teaching children how to watch TV programs, movies, music videos, and other forms of entertainment with a critical eye. While many educators advise that young people not watch the Bravo reality series, NYC Prep, about private school kids in Manhattan, Gilbert’s attitude is to confront the issue head on. “I would have brought the TV in the classroom and watched with the students,” she says. “What a great way to teach boys and girls about the misuse of the medium that we have.”
Grandparents now play a greater role in their grandchildren’s lives (Gilbert herself is a grandmother), and she would like to see schools include them in a more meaningful way. “Seventy percent of grandparents are involved in their grandchildren’s lives, many as caretakers, as well as contributors to tuition,” she says. “We grandparents are younger than we used to be. And being one generation removed gives us a perspective on education and the value of it.” Rather than only inviting grandparents to a special day at school, Gilbert suggests a more personal connection such as a photo of the grandchild with a handwritten note from the teacher.
Gilbert credits her viewpoint as an educator for helping her raise her children, two sons and a daughter. “I learned by being a teacher how to construct their lives,” she says. “Punishment was not a part of our family life. There were consequences. I was a single mom with three children. If you didn’t do your laundry, there were no clean clothes. If you needed to have your sheets changed you needed to strip your bed.”
Growing up in Brooklyn Heights, Gilbert graduated from Vassar College. After teaching at a boys’ school near Boston, she became head of an all girls’ school in St. Louis. She became headmistress at Spence in 1983.
Gilbert is making up for lost time by traveling whenever she gets the opportunity. “You can’t be head of the school and travel widely,” she says. She enjoys the summer months in Maine and time in Florida during the winter. During the recent holiday vacation, she relaxed with her family in Costa Rica. “It’s such a great time of life,” she says.
Every now and then, Gilbert runs into a former student who will remember a class Gilbert taught or a talk she gave. She’s kept all her chapel talks from her time in St. Louis, her favorite one described a tide pool she saw on the coast of Maine. “We all live in that tide pool, ” she says. “I will still have girls ask me, `Remember when you talked about that tide pool?’” She laughs. “That’s when you know you’ve gotten into people’s lives, and isn’t that what we want to do?”
For more information, got to her website, www.edesgilbertconsulting.com
Photos from top:
Edes Gilbert in her office, top two.
Edees Gilbert with her family on Boxing Day in Portsmouth, NH, from left, son, Tim, his wife, Amy, their children, Clayton, Talcott, and Wilson, Brian and Sarah Kilcommons, Edes’ daughter and son-in-law
Edees with her son, Tim, in Maine
Edees reading with her grandson, Clayton
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Gramercy Tavern
Favorite Place to Shop: Babette, 137 Greene Street
Favorite New York Sight: The skyline at night when I come from La Guardia or JFK after dark.
Favorite New York Moment: Going to concert at Carnegie Hall and then to Petrossian for cold white wine and smoked salmon.
What You Love about New York: The variety of people, music, art, and accessibility to it all. It energizes me on a daily basis.
What You Hate about New York: The traffic on a rainy Friday afternoon and the disappearing cabs between 4 and 6:30 every day.