On the first day of school in August 2011, the PD community witnessed something for the first time: the new Head of School, Dr. Glyn Cowlishaw, standing beside the school’s carpool drop-off area known as the Ferryboat, greeting young students and escorting them to their classrooms alongside the rest of the faculty and staff.
At Providence Day, Heads of School had traditionally done most of their work in offices and behind the scenes. Cowlishaw, as the sixth person to hold the position at PD, brought a new visibility. And soon, he took it to a different level entirely.
That November, to the delight of Lower Schoolers, he dressed as a turkey - complete with a red wattle dangling below the beak - for the fourth annual Turkey Trot, raising food bank donations in honor of beloved late coach Gil Murdock. It was the first of many, many eye-catching costumes and outfits he’d wear - from ringmaster of the TK Circus to Halloween superheroes to ugly holiday sweaters - as he joined with students to punctuate special occasions throughout the year.
“He is willing to put on a costume for students, but what that also told me is he really understood and understands the very complex dynamics of a community spanning ages four or five to ages 18 or 19,” said Kimberly Paulk, who was the parent of a third grader that first year, and now chairs the Board of Trustees as alumni parent to Ethan ’21.
“That's huge. It's hard to find a person who truly grasps the nuances and can put on a turkey costume and then change and go to a Middle School performance and interact with students and then put on a business suit for a formal meeting.”
It was the first of many signs that Cowlishaw was weaving himself into the community in new and ground-breaking ways, from launching a tradition of regular attendance at Parents’ Association meetings to joining global organizations including Round Square and Global Online Academy to enabling PD to become the nation’s first independent school hosting a Freedom School site.
“I could tell that Glyn was going to be the right leader to move us forward because he has the kind of personality that inspires people to follow him,” said Lee Tappy ’94, now Head of Middle School and parent to Brannon and Izzy ’28. “I also have appreciated that he has such a great sense of humor, which has been a great connection for the two of us. Glyn is not scared to put himself out there, and I have admired that about him for as long as I have known him.”
Monique Allen, vice chair of the Board of Trustees and parent of Justin ’22 and Austin ’18, credits Cowlishaw’s energy and enthusiasm for raising the school’s profile. “It’s authentic and beyond inspiring - it’s transmissible,” she said. “I’ve learned that Glyn’s tireless enthusiasm genuinely emanates from his profound passion for the PD community.” Brooks Aker '10, president of the PD Board of Alumni, agreed. "Dr. Cowlishaw is an outstanding listener. The importance for the leader of an institution like PD, with so many different constituents, to possess such a skill can't be understated," he said. "He never ceases to impress me with his ability to blend humor and gravitas so effortlessly."
In 11 years, Board of Trustees members say, Cowlishaw’s leadership has combined significant growth and change with respect for PD’s long-standing beloved traditions. And now, following a strong vote of confidence from the Board of Trustees, he’s positioned to continue leading the school toward its 2030 goals - which will include another comprehensive campaign in the coming years, to follow the successful $27.8 million Charging Forward initiative.
It’s all being guided by the Strategic Framework adopted by the Board. “The framework is to help us evolve the school and be flexible enough financially to prepare our students and our school community for whatever's to come,” said Paulk.
Added Allen: "Glyn’s role will be to continue to honor and promote the collective voice of PD and permit that voice to drive the strategic vision of the community onward.”
Glyn’s role will be to continue to honor and promote the collective voice of PD and permit that voice to drive the strategic vision of the community onward.”
DECADE-PLUS OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Among the school’s many accomplishments over Cowlishaw’s decade-plus of leadership, Board of Trustees members point to the growth of the school’s endowment - from a last-place-among-peers $5 million when he joined the school, to more than $22 million today, with a Strategic Framework goal of reaching $55 million by 2030.
“When we're building the endowment, we're building the foundation for future Providence Day students,” said Paulk.
The campus has also physically transformed over the past decade, adding more than 100,000 square feet of new space. The improvements began early with the Overcash Stadium field and infrastructure, and spanned Lower School renovations with new lighting, ceilings and floors; Ridenhour gym renovations; science laboratories; improvements to McMahon Theatre; and the construction of the DeMayo Gateway Center, parking deck, and four-story Academic Center.
Along with campus transformation has come a rising profile among scholar-athletes, with top-ranked PD teams in both boys’ and girls’ sports and across all seasons becoming commonplace within the North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association. The Wells Fargo Cup, a year-long barometer of overall athletic performance awarded by the NCISAA, has gone to Providence Day in seven of the last 10 years and eight times overall. Upper School athletes have maintained average GPAs between 3.6 and 3.9 each of those years.
“I'm so excited that the performing arts, theatre, and athletics have all increased their levels of excellence, but at the same time, so have our academics,” said Cowlishaw. “That for me is the alchemy of Providence Day School. Excellence in all areas.”
The school has also seen an uptick in students attending historically Black colleges and universities over the past decade, as well as a much broader and deeper pool of internationally top-ranked universities tracked by College Guidance. “College acceptances are not just going coast to coast - that used to be the big deal - now they’re going global,” Cowlishaw added. Merit scholarships awarded to graduating seniors since Cowlishaw’s arrival have topped $117 million.
Cowlishaw’s leadership has also overseen a deepened connection to alumni. “He has rekindled the spirit and engagement of the alumni in such an unparalleled manner; he makes us all feel like we still attend Providence Day, cheering on each other’s successes,” said Shawn Smith ’88, a member of the Board of Alumni and the 2021 Commencement speaker.
Long-serving faculty point to other changes under Cowlishaw’s leadership. “Some of the biggest changes, along with the visibility of the Head of School, have been the growing enrollment and a commitment to providing a PD education to as many people as possible, as well as a more diverse PD family,” said History Department Chair Ted Dickson, who joined the faculty in 1991.
Saundra Robbins joined PD in 1990 as its first Black faculty member and remains a Lower School PE teacher. She also served as the first director of PD’s Freedom School site when it launched in 2012, which she names as a favorite memory of her tenure. “The other day I was looking at my Kindergarten class, thinking ‘This is beautiful’ - it was just awesome to see the diversity,” she said. “I don't think we've lost the feel of the family. As you grow, things change. That's one thing I hope we continue with, our administration and our leaders really encouraging the family-oriented feeling.”
Dr. Chris Mullis ’90 served as Board Chair for a term spanning the successful conclusion of the Charging Forward campaign - which included four seven-figure gifts to the school - through the first year of the pandemic. During the 20-21 school year as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and major systems around the nation learned remotely, Providence Day students continued learning safely in person.
“There has never been a more challenging time to be in education than the pandemic; never a time more systematically crisis-driven,” said Mullis. “We were very fortunate to have an extremely experienced leader at the helm. We had to create a solution to a problem that’s never been seen or solved. He has a team that got it done.”
As further support for the school’s leadership, Mullis points to the significant number of school leaders who have moved on from Providence Day to become top leaders or Heads of School at other institutions - including Derrick Willard, now leading Augusta Prep, and Cecil Stodghill, now head of the Altamont School.
Cowlishaw and the Board are overseeing ongoing visible improvements, from construction of the McMahon Fine Arts and Dining Hall project transforming more than 22,000 square feet, and Dickson-Hemby renovations, launching the new IDEAS@PD initiative, which stands for Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, Analytics, and Sustainability.
"The IDEAS@PD renovation is inspiring, encouraging, and what the future of teaching and learning will look like," says Ryan Welsh, PD’s Chief Design Strategist and a key part of the new initiative. "I'm super excited about the space and even more excited about being able to recognize that our students are doing really interesting, innovative things."
Students are sharing in the excitement. “I really like the science programs at our school; I like how interactive they are,” said Rex Rokahr ’23. “The new renovations in Dickson-Hemby will really help us to fully access all those materials.
And every day I eat snack with the TK students and I like to imagine what it will be like for them in 10 years. I’m really excited for the next generation to come through.”
“It's so crazy how much has changed on campus - it’s like Disneyland, how things pop up,” adds Hope Kerrigan ’23, who’s most excited about the improvements in Fine Arts spaces. “I really do attribute a lot of that to the leadership of the school. I love Dr. Cowlishaw, and I love the faculty here so much. All they've been able to push for and make happen.”
Pavan Thakkar ’24 is one of the students who received the coveted auction prize of becoming “Head of School for a day” as a fourth-grader, and has continued to keep in close touch with Cowlishaw. “Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed seeing the growth of PD on many fronts, from the new Academic Center to the increases in the class options and extracurricular activities available,” he said. “Looking forward, I’m excited to see the opening of the Fine Arts building
extension, as well as the new IDEAS@PD department, and continued improvement in community and inclusion!”
MORE IMPROVEMENTS AHEAD
More new improvements are still in the planning stages, such as a comprehensive TK through 12th grade
enhancement of learning spaces. Cowlishaw and the Board are eyeing the dated Overcash Lower School building as the first to potentially see new improvements.
“As part of our Strategic Framework, we're committed to bringing all the buildings on campus, of course with a special focus on Lower School, up to the teaching and learning standard that we have with our newest buildings,” said Paulk.
In preliminary work with architectural consultants, school leaders have been asking provocative questions, notes Michael Magno, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs. "How might we provide students with more of an opportunity for learning and connectivity with a sense of adventure that doesn't only exist in classrooms - that exists in other areas and throughout campus? What if coming to school every day meant a new adventure?"
Erin Harper, Head of Lower School, is looking forward to this reimagining of Lower School spaces. “We need more new learning spaces for Lower School students that aren’t necessarily the traditional classroom,” she said. “Dr. Cowlishaw understands how important physical space is. Glyn’s proximity to Lower School (in his office) has really been in our favor because he's been so immersed in our everyday life; when we've had a need, because he's so immersed in our division, he is really set to go for it and dream big.”
Looking ahead to 2030, Cowlishaw already has a tenure that stands out among Head of School trends measured by the National Association of Independent Schools.
“Anyone who has any knowledge of what's happening in the independent school world hopes against hope that such a talented head of school will stay with them as long as Glyn has been with our community and continues to stay with our community,” said Paulk.
“I think he's fallen in love with Providence Day. He completely bought into preserving what makes Providence Day special while also helping lead us toward being even better together. He's a Charger. I think that's why he stays, because he's home.”
During what would have been Glyn Cowlishaw’s 10th anniversary in his role, the school was still wrapping up its own year-long 50th anniversary celebration, as well as grappling with the challenges of the global pandemic. So in a slight twist on tradition, Cowlishaw sat to reflect during his 11th year, with an eye toward discussing the future.
Q: What are some of your early memories after joining Providence Day in 2011?
What a hotbed of academic excellence! First, one of my first memories, having spent 14 years at another school, is that in my first faculty meeting, I got the name of the school wrong. Took me seven years to be forgiven for that! Another early memory was just how beloved the school is, with alumni and alumni parents. I was just blown away by that. Just a passion here that I had not experienced in any other school to this level.
One of my first thoughts when I got here was ‘Wow, this commitment to legacy is so incredible at this school.’ My wife Darlene, to this day, says, ‘We loved our previous school. But I wish our kids had gone here. I wish they'd had the experience to be alumni at this place.’
Q: A lot of parents saw you for the first time in the Ferryboat on the first day of school. What do you remember from that?
I thought we had used maybe the Disney corporation to organize it. Because it ran with such an amazing mechanical efficiency, like a Disney line, but it’s one of the special places for me. That's where the TK through 12 magic would often start the day, with fourth graders coming in with their older siblings or their older friends and everybody together. That alchemy of PD, that TK through 12 ‘special sauce.’
No matter how that space may change - look how it’s changed already, we close it during the day now so it becomes a safe space - but there will always have to be a Ferryboat, long after you and I have gone. It’s legendary.
Q: What are some of the biggest changes at PD in your time here?
When I arrived there were 1,500 students, and now there are more than 1,830. The growth in student diversity in that time has also been significant, and now we have more to go with faculty diversity, which we’re addressing with our new Teaching Fellows program and other initiatives.
I think PD did a great job before I got here and we’ve done a strong job since, with equity, inclusivity, and belonging. That’s always been a central thread running through everything else.
Q: Is there anything you would have done differently?
I shouldn't have tried to introduce cricket in year one (laughs). But in seriousness, ten or 11 years ago, we weren't as ahead, I don't think, of the mental health piece, health and wellbeing, which is now part of the Strategic Framework. And as much as we push and push for excellence, we could have stopped and celebrated and focused a little bit more in that area.
Q: You’ve now been at PD as long as many of our “lifers.” How has it changed you as a person?
It actually has changed me radically. PD’s commitment to excellence; to equity, inclusivity, to belonging; it's cool to love school. It's OK to be excellent in Latin while you're pursuing your excellence in dance. The fact that so many of our students pursue excellence in so many arenas, I think, has rubbed off on me.
I read a much wider branch of literature because I'm at PD, I've become more globally aware because I'm at PD, I've become more socially aware because I'm at PD, and that list just goes on and on. It’s a humbling experience because PD - faculty, staff, students, parents - is such a rich reservoir.
Q: What does the future hold for PD?
One of my most important goals here is that Lower School students should all speak with a British accent. (laughs)
In seriousness, I’m excited for what the future holds. Over 10 years, we’ve had an average of 150 graduates per year. That’s 1,500 alumni, 3,000 alumni parents, 6,000 alumni grandparents. That’s when you get the idea of the global network of Providence Day School. Imagine how exponentially it grows.
We need the technology, we need the entrepreneurship, we need the innovation. We need the next level of Global Studies. And we do need the world class facilities piece as well.
That takes place in grades TK through 12, but the obvious place to start is Lower School, and particularly the Overcash Building. It’s been here since the 1970s. It serves this community remarkably well, but what an amazing opportunity for all of us to reimagine what the next phase of our campus looks like.
The ambition, the scope, the vision known as Providence Day School will always continue to improve, which I think speaks volumes for the place. One of the things I have learned is you can dream big, but at Providence Day School, you dream big and those dreams can and will become a reality.
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