About Spence

Our History

Our History

Founder Clara Spence was a visionary woman whose ideals of progressive education and pioneering work reflected a belief that education of women was essential to social progress.
She set girls and young women on a path of leadership and her vision continues to inform an evermore dynamic and relevant framework for excellence in teaching and learning at Spence today. Miss Spence’s educational philosophy, and pioneering work on adoption, an anomaly at the time, were deeply connected.
On October 4, 1892, Clara Spence opened the doors of Miss Spence’s School, welcoming 10 boarding and day students to a brownstone on West 48th Street in New York City. The same year, she took legal guardianship of an orphaned child. Her growing reputation for adoption work introduced Charlotte Baker into Miss Spence’s life. Baker joined the faculty of the School, and their kinship transformed into a 25-year professional and personal partnership in running the School, sharing a passion for the care and adoption of children, creating a family of their own, and becoming exemplars of independent, influential women.

Clara Spence, 1892

​​“It is not so much what you are as what you can become that must be the source of your inspiration.”

A School Like No Other

From the beginning, Clara Spence ran her school differently than any other educator at the time. She organized “sightseeing trips with Miss Spence” so that girls could experience life in New York City first-hand. She weaved a rich performing arts component into her curriculum. She opened the School’s rooftop for outdoor activities. She established connections with universities, assuring her students’ learning adventure could continue.

Women Finding a Significant Place in the World

Miss Spence embraced the outside world of politics, the arts, and the community, at times bringing it inside through lectures and talks. She invited women leaders—such as Hellen Keller (through her interpreter, Annie Sullivan), Edith Wharton, and Eleanor Roosevelt—to speak at the School. Other notable speakers included Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

Service Learning Pioneer

Spence’s progressive curriculum insisted on the utility of education for the purpose of service to the community: “Service is not only the one transcendent opportunity but the special duty and privilege of girls like you who have received unusual advantages,” she shared with her students.

Inspired by Spence and Baker, in 1898 Spence alumnae formed a “Miss Spence’s School Society” that engaged in civic-philanthropic work. In 1915, the focus of the Society turned solely to the care and adoption of children, work that would continue until 1942. In 1943 the society merged with another adoption service and became today’s Spence-Chapin Adoption Services.

Human Connection

Unlike other heads of school at the time, Spence believed in building close personal connections with her students. She demanded much from her “dear girls” academically, but she wasn’t afraid to join in on their joy—even dancing the Highland Fling of her native Scotland with them. That she described life as “a splendid struggle” to her girls highlights her want for them to rise above and help those in need, but not forget to enjoy themselves and each other’s company along the way, to embrace the adventure that was their learning, and make that adventure lifelong.

Spence's Legacy

Clara Spence died in 1923 after leading her school for 31 years. The School moved to its current home at East 91st Street in 1929; there has been no boarding option since 1953. More than a century has passed since she founded her school. Thousands of girls, starting with those very first 10 in 1892, have benefited from her moral and intellectual strengths and her founding principles—a challenging education to enrich intellect, build character, and strengthen the spirit.

Clara Spence

“If the school has been faithful to its charge, each one of you should have an earnest desire to help others. To live for self is to narrow your horizon.”

About Our Motto

Not for SCHOOL but for LIFE we learn.
Non scholae sed vitae discimus

When Clara Spence adopted this quotation from Seneca as our motto, she deepened her call for young women to keep learning even if the doors of higher education were closed to them at the time. Today, our motto and mission represent the forever appetite for intellectual adventure and the capacity to chart one’s own path.

Past Heads of The Spence School

1892   Clara Spence (Founder)
1923   Charlotte Sanford Baker
1929   Helen C. Miller
1932   Valentine Laura Chandor
1935   Dorothy Howard Sanderson ’12
1936   Dorothy Brockway (m. Osborne, 1938)
1952   Barbara Colbron
1970   Dustin Hull Heuston
1977   Juliana Schmemann
1981   Margaret A. Johnson, Interim Head
1983   Edes Gilbert
1998   Arlene Joy Gibson
2006   Nancy J. Elting, Interim Head
2007   Ellanor N. (Bodie) Brizendine
2022   Felicia A. Wilks
A K-12 independent school in New York city, The Spence School prepares a diverse community of girls and young women for the demands of academic excellence and responsible citizenship.


© 2023 Spence School