Malinda Cobb wasn’t trying to make history when she applied to be principal of the Academy of Richmond County this summer.
She wasn’t even aware she was about to.
“I told people I was applying to be principal there, and I had one person say, ‘Oh, OK, right, good luck with that,’ ” said Cobb, referring to the school’s unbroken record of white, male principals.
It wasn’t until her interview that she learned Richmond Academy hasn’t had a woman behind the principal’s desk in its 229-year history.
Cobb, 38, has become the first female principal at the oldest public school in the South and one of the oldest in the nation.
Augusta’s principals are overwhelmingly female today. Of Richmond County’s 55 schools, 40 have female principals, according to Chief Human Resource Officer Norman Hill.
Founded as an all-boys school in 1783, Richmond Academy continued an all-male tradition through the years. It became a military academy during the Civil War and a public high school later.
Girls were first allowed to attend Richmond Academy in 1950, and the school integrated in the 1960s.
“For a long time, it’s been a boys club to a degree at ARC,” said the school’s International Baccalaureate dean, Charlie Tutor. “But everyone is going to embrace Mrs. Cobb. Her heart is in the right place.”
Catherine Luckey, a 1964 Richmond Academy graduate who taught at the school for 20 years, said male principals were an understood tradition and not necessarily seen as negative.
Most military schools have a male-dominated history, and Richmond Academy likes to hold on to its roots, she said.
“You didn’t even think about it,” Luckey said. “When principals changed, you automatically thought about who the next man would be.”
“To break that barrier,” she said, Cobb “has to be a very special female.”
Cobb was raised in Saluda, S.C., and grew up knowing she’d be a lifelong educator. She was the teacher’s assistant in second grade and a teacher cadet in high school, and she comes from a family of school bus drivers, school secretaries and substitute teachers.
After college, Cobb worked as an English teacher for 10 years before moving into administration. She was an assistant principal at North Harlem Elementary School and most recently principal at Goshen Elementary.
“After working in the classroom, I wanted to make a difference on a larger scale,” Cobb said. “I had a lot of ideas, and I want to support teachers how I always wanted to be supported.”
Cobb believes in communication among principals, teachers and students. At Goshen Elementary, Cobb learned the names of every one of her 400 students.
She hopes to do the same at Richmond Academy and said she wants to make students feel that they belong.
As far as her milestone, Cobb is modest. She said there are many talented female principals in Richmond County and that a good principal has nothing to do with gender.
“I believe if you do good work, and you’re honest and fair, that spreads,” she said. “That has given me the opportunity for this job. I guess that’s why I was naive enough to not even realize I was the first female principal at ARC.”
Of the 83,903 U.S. public school principals in 2000, 43 percent were women, according to a 2003 report by global policy think-tank RAND Corp.
Arnold Danzig, a professor in the Arizona State University School of Public Affairs, said the number of male and female principals are about equal today. Statistics in the classroom have more disparity, with about 75 percent of public school teachers being female, Danzig said.
The gender disparity grows more at the superintendent level. According to a 2010 study by the American Association of School Administrators, 24 percent of superintendents surveyed were women, up from 13 percent in 2000.
The female superintendents were twice as likely as men to have 20 or more years of teaching experience before moving into administration.
Luckey said she is happy to see Richmond Academy go along with the move toward more women in administrative roles. She said there is always room for improvement in Augusta.
“I think the next step would be to have a female superintendent,” Luckey said.