PD PRofiles: saundra robbins By matt sPence

With 2020 being Providence Day’s fiftieth anniversary, people want to know what the school was like “back in the day,” so I reached out to three of the fourteen faculty who have worked here for more than thirty years. The first person I talked with was Saundra Robbins, who is now in her thirty-first year as Lower School PE teacher and softball coach. She is also the parent of two PD alumni, Johnathan (Class of '06) and Jasmine (Class of '10), and the grandparent of Sarabi, who is in the first grade.

Robbins grew up in South Port, North Carolina as one of seven children. Sports were an important part of their lives, and it was her talent for basketball and desire to earn a degree in Physical Education that drew Robbins to Johnson C. Smith University, a historically Black college /university (HBCU) in Charlotte. In her four years at JCSU, Robbins’ primary sport was basketball, but she also played on the school’s volleyball and softball teams “just for fun and to keep busy.”

After graduating in 1987 with a degree in Physical Education, Robbins continued to work at JCSU as the volleyball coach while also working as a teaching assistant at Myers Park Traditional School, which is part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system. After about two years, her former college coach, Stephen Joyner, told her about a coaching opportunity at Providence Day, and she applied for it despite not knowing much about the school. A week later, Barbara Fricke, who was then the Chair of the Physical Education Department, called Joyner looking for someone with a PE background to fill a part-time position. Robbins was hired for both jobs.

1990 Providence Day Yearbook photo of Robbins

Just before the start of the school year, Fricke called her to say that the part-time position she had been hired for had become a full-time one, and she offered her the job. Robbins jumped at the opportunity.

“And that’s how I ended up here, and it’s truly been a blessing from day one.” — Saundra Robbins

Although moving from a part-time to a full-time position a week before the start of classes might have been nerve-wracking for some, Robbins was thrilled. She said that she has always enjoyed coaching, but teaching was her real passion; it was what she had always wanted to do. She also credits her colleagues with making her feel like a part of their family, so she knew they would help her with the adjustment. However, the support of her new family did not lessen the surprise she experienced on the first faculty workday.

Robbins said that the PE Department immediately made her feel welcome, and she loved the school’s warm, family atmosphere.

Traditionally, the first meeting of the school year is held in the McMahon Theater. The Head of School welcomes the faculty and staff and makes a few remarks, and then new faculty are introduced. Robbins recalled sitting in the theater with her fellow PE teachers and watching people as they wandered in and took their seats.

“And I’m sitting there, looking at people coming in, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘Oh wow. Okay. No wonder Barbara Fricke was intentional about reaching out to a predominantly Black college to find a teacher,’” Robbins said. She quickly realized that she was the only African-American teacher in the school.

After a year of teaching PE at the Middle School level, Robbins eagerly took advantage of an opportunity to move to the Lower School to be with the age group she loves. As the only African-American teacher at PD, her younger students were curious about her. “Some of my babies would just come up and touch my skin, and I would just say to them, ‘Oh yeah! Come on – it’s okay!’ And, then I’d reach down or give them a hug . . . That’s happened to me countless times,” Robbins said.

Robbins leads a group of Lower Schoolers during Grandparents’ Day in 2009.

Despite the welcoming school environment and support of her colleagues, Robbins said she was frustrated during her third year. That year, there was an unusually high amount of faculty turnover, and Robbins met many of the applicants who were people of color. She said that she liked many of them and thought they would do well at PD, but ultimately, the open positions were filled by White people. Robbins was disappointed, but she acknowledged that because personnel matters are confidential, it was possible that the school may have offered jobs to minority candidates and been turned down.

Robbins said that Providence Day “ . . . seemed content to grow within its own walls, but I wanted to share this school with everybody.” So, she started to meet with the administration to talk about diversity. She said that everyone, especially Head of School Gene Bratek, really listened to her. “I feel that the school took my concerns and dove into it.”

Yearbook photos from the mid-1990. On the right, Robbins poses with her son, Johnathan (PD class of ‘06)

Thinking back over the early years of her career, Robbins said, “That third year was a challenge because I was expecting the school to grow a little more in terms of diversity, but at that time, we did not. [It wasn’t until my fifth year] that we had another African-American teacher, but after that, with Mr. Bratek, the school really started living our mission statement and [began] to build the school to be more diverse.”

Robbins says that several of her African-American friends asked her why she stayed at PD during those early years. Her response was simple. “If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it? If I leave, then there’s nobody there,” Robbins said. She added that she loved the school and believed in its mission. “This school is my heart,” Robbins said.

“This school is my heart.”

Over the next several years, the school grew in size and gradually became more diverse, but Robbins said it has never lost the inviting atmosphere that made PD a wonderful place to work. The PE department was still like her second family, and as in every family, there were losses. Robbins said that Nancy Stockton and the late Gil Murdock were two people who “took me under their wings,” and their retirement was difficult for her. “[Murdock] was, if not the heart of the school, he was close to being the heart of the school. . . . When [he] and Nancy retired, their impact made me want to keep their spirit going,” Robbins said.

“It’s changed a lot, but we’ve got a lot of miles to go.”

As Robbins reflected on how the school has changed since she joined the faculty in 1990, she said it has grown in ways she never would have expected. “I never thought we’d have an African-American as the Head of Admissions or the Head of Lower School,” Robbins said. Nor did she ever imagine that Providence Day’s student body would be more diverse than the other independent schools in Charlotte. Robbins recalls recently looking at a picture of a kindergarten class and being surprised and proud of how diverse the “beautiful faces” were. “It’s changed a lot,” Robbins said, “but we’ve got a lot of miles to go.”

I asked Coach Robbins to imagine what Providence Day would be like when it celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. She paused for a few moments, and then said that she hoped the school would be known for “the continuation of us opening the door to whoever would love to be here. To continue to be the warm, caring institution that welcomes people from wherever.” She then added, “I want us to continue to teach our students to be the best people they can be in this world.”

“I want us to continue to teach our students to be the best people they can be in this world.”

All photos for this story were provided by Bobbie Hinson and the PD Archives.