The year was 1916. News from World War I battlefields dominated the headlines, President Woodrow Wilson was in the midst of a re-election campaign that he would ultimately win, and the Women’s Suffrage Movement was still four years away from securing the right to vote.
Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Sara Frazer Ellis was preparing to establish "not a large school but a sound and thorough one" that would prepare young women for “the rigorous admission requirements of the Eastern women's colleges.”
Miss Ellis saw a need, and an opportunity. After a local college preparatory school for women (Dilworth Hall) closed its doors, she decided to open her own facility. With three teachers and 41 students, The Ellis School took up residence at 4860 Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside.
An alumna of Bryn Mawr College, Miss Ellis knew the importance of an education and so she insisted on a curriculum that included chemistry, physics, history, Latin, French, English, mathematics, and art history.
For the next 25 years, she not only served as Headmistress, but also set out to ensure that the School would continue to flourish long after she stepped down. To that end, Miss Ellis formally purchased the Ellsworth Avenue building, gained accreditation from the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges, incorporated the School under a nonprofit charter and then sold it to a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees, and acquired two other local girls’ schools (Miss Shearer’s and Miss Simonson's).
Although she officially retired in 1941 and was succeeded by Harriet Sheldon (1941 to 1944) and then Marjorie L. Tilley (from 1944 to 1955), Miss Ellis never truly stopped working on behalf of the School that carried her name. She was often seen—and heard—at board meetings, commencement ceremonies, and other Ellis events. Sara Frazer Ellis died in 1962, at the age of 87.
With Miss Tilley at the reins, the School experienced a growth spurt both in terms of space and enrollment. By 1947, she was overseeing the acquisition of several properties—the Ogden Edwards, Lazar, and Lockhart houses—on Negley Avenue, not to mention the education of some 300 students.
During Miss Tilley’s last year as Headmistress in 1955, Ellis was doing its best to accommodate its ever-increasing enrollment by setting up temporary classrooms in the nearby Third Presbyterian Church, Hunt Armory, and the East Liberty YWCA.
Marion Hope Hamilton
Enter Dr. Marion Hope Hamilton. Taking over as Headmistress, her first order of business was to find a new—larger—place to call home. She landed on a 5-acre site that was once part of the Charles and Thomas Arbuthnot estate. Located on Fifth Avenue, it remains the home of The Ellis School to this day.
In 1959, when construction of the Middle and Upper School building was completed (the Lower School had moved into an existing building known today as Arbuthnot House), Ellis boasted an enrollment of 383, a faculty of 39, and a reputation that was spreading beyond western Pennsylvania. In fact, in 1961 the School was authorized to establish a Cum Laude Society chapter.
Helen Mason Moore
Following Dr. Hamilton’s retirement, Helen Mason Moore assumed Headmistress responsibilities in 1962. Those were turbulent times, and Mrs. Moore’s forward thinking and strong leadership are often credited with creating a safe and stable environment for Ellis students.
Her innovations included appointing Department Heads with whom she would consult regarding important academic policies, encouraging seniors to participate in real-world learning activities (like independent study programs and senior projects), bringing the world to the School through weekly assemblies, and inviting the community to utilize its facilities.
Responding to what Mrs. Moore referred to as "the tidal wave of co-education which had swept over the colleges," the Board of Trustees began considering the possibility of Ellis going coed. In 1972, after years of research, study, and discussion, Ellis affirmed that it would remain a girls-only institution.
The reaction to the news was overwhelming. “When the decision was announced in assembly,” recalls Judith COHEN Callomon '54, retired Upper School Director and former Acting Head of School, “the girls responded en masse in one of those ear-splitting, bench-thumping ovations.”
Helen Mason Moore was succeeded by Janet Jacobs in 1971. Miss Jacobs’ tenure was distinguished by an increased emphasis on extracurricular activities and field trips as well as visiting speakers, artists, and authors. Another one of her accomplishments was the introduction of Mini-Courses for the Upper School, a tradition that continues today. This "third semester" in the final weeks of the school year was the first of its kind in Pittsburgh, and offered a curriculum of more than 50 academic and nonacademic courses taught by Ellis teachers, outside experts, and the occasional student. In 1975, Miss Jacobs also turned her attention to an ambitious 10-year development plan to address burgeoning infrastructure and technological needs.
By 1980, $3.5 million had been raised, resulting in an expanded Fred C. Babcock Library, a new science wing, additional Middle School facilities, a mini-gym, remodeled fine arts rooms, and new playgrounds. That same year, phase two of the plan, which focused on maintaining a low student-faculty ratio and competitive salaries, was launched.
In the overall developmental scheme of things, one of the most significant achievements was the construction of a new Lower School building. Unfortunately, Janet Jacobs retired before the project was completed, leaving the ribbon-cutting ceremony to the next Headmistress Ellen E. Fleming. Dedicated in 1988, the Alice S. Beckwith Building featured its own science lab, music room, and gym/activities room.
After just four years at Ellis, Miss Fleming opted to return to her native South, and so Frances A. Koch served as Interim Head of School.
In 1992, a search committee selected Rebecca T. Upham as the next Head of School. It was under her watch that national figures like columnist and writer Anna Quindlen, astronaut Sally Ride, researcher Carol Gilligan, and author Mary Pipher were invited to speak at Ellis as part of the newly established symposia.
Her administration’s sound fiscal management also allowed for some major changes including the wireless laptop program for grades 8-12; a $9.7 million Capital Campaign, which contributed to the construction of the new Upper School Hillman Family Building; an increase in the endowment; a new Alumnae Hall, and a new athletic facility, which includes a regulation-sized gym, climbing wall, and training center.
At the end of the 2000-2001 academic year, Ms. Upham assumed headship of a large independent school in Boston and Judith COHEN Callomon '54 stepped in as Acting Head of School.
Mary H. Grant
A highly competitive and comprehensive national search found Dr. Mary H. Grant, former Assistant Head and Upper School Director at The Springside School in Philadelphia. For the next several years as Head of School, Dr. Grant formulated plans for campus expansion, enrollment management, development, school identity, and a new institutional website.
A. Randol Benedict
Dr. Mary H. Grant retired in 2008 and A. Randol Benedict, the long-time Admissions Director at The Garrison Forest School in Maryland, served as Head of School from 2009 to 2013. Under Mrs. Benedict’s leadership, Ellis implemented more dynamic and challenging coursework in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); school communications moved to digital platforms; and faculty began using new learning management software for their classes and homework assignments. In 2012, work began on a new strategic plan and rebranding for the School, which went on to win a 2015 Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) Gold Award.
Robin O. Newham
After serving as Interim Head of School from September to December 2013, Robin Newham was officially named Head of The Ellis School by the Board of Trustees. She has been a member of the Ellis community since joining the faculty in 1981 as a studio arts and art history teacher and then serving as Director of the Upper School for 15 years prior to her appointment as Head of School.
With Mrs. Newham at the helm, Ellis celebrated the grand opening of a new state-of-the-art athletic field in 2014. The 72,600-square-foot regulation-sized field is lined for soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse, and is the first regulation-sized field in the School’s history. Ellis athletics received a much deserved spark with this facilities expansion. With 70 percent of its Middle and Upper School students playing team sports, Ellis team participation far exceeds the national average, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
In 2015, renovations were started on Middle School classrooms and science labs, the Lower School Pre-K classroom, and the Benjamin R. Fisher Gallery. Integrated studies and experiential learning opportunities are increasingly apparent in the program of studies for Ellis students. Such dynamic, project-based learning best prepares students for a technologically focused and globally connected world.
By 2016, Ellis will be celebrating its centennial anniversary. Much has changed during these last 100 years and Ellis is no exception. Its buildings and campus, Heads of School and faculty members may have changed, but what has remained constant throughout the decades is The Ellis School’s commitment to preparing, empowering, and inspiring generations of girls for their futures. This charge—instilled by Sara Frazer Ellis and still relevant today—will no doubt be a part of the School’s ongoing history in the next 100 years.