Stand Up—and Speak Up—for Girls’ Education Around the World

In celebration of International Day of the Girl, NCGS launches, in collaboration with its Global Forum on Girls’ Education® II strategic partners, a Pledge in support of girls’ education around the world.

We invite you to sign and share the Pledge on social media using the hashtag #StandUpSpeakUp.

What originated in February 2016 as a conference of nearly 1,000 educators, mostly from girls’ schools located in 23 countries, became much more significant. It signaled the start of a movement—a call to action to awaken the world to the importance of empowering girls through a single, inalienable right: access to a quality education. NCGS and partners from across the globe are eager to take the next step in making our voices heard and for educators of girls to lead this conversation.

The Pledge captures and articulates the excitement, opportunity, and imperative from that inaugural Global Forum on Girls’ Education and calls upon us to stand up—and speak up—for girls’ education. The concepts conveyed in the Pledge—inspiration, confidence, collaboration, empowerment—reflect the common values and interests of our diverse, yet mission-aligned, partners working together on the Global Forum II.

Intended for advocates of all ages, the Pledge is being distributed via Change.org to allow supporters easy access to sign and share it regardless of geographic location. Available in English and Spanish, the Pledge displays the unified strength within the girls’ school and girls’ education communities.

Join us as we stand up—and speak up—for girls’ education by signing and sharing the Pledge (English or Spanish) today!

STEP: The Choreography of Life In and Outside of The Young Women’s Leadership Schools

If you want to witness the true greatness of America, turn off your television sets, stop listening to the noise out of Washington, and go see the movie STEP. Soon to be in theaters nationally on August 4, STEP is a dazzling and emotional documentary film about our affiliate school, The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, and the powerful journey of members of its step team. The school was created in 2009, and was modeled after the school I founded in 1996, The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, the first of five of our New York City schools. These schools are all-girls public schools, grades 6 to 12.

As an Executive Producer for STEP, I have been buoyed by seniors Cori Grainger, Blessin Giraldo, and Tayla Solomon ever since they started sharing their stories with Amanda Lipitz, the film’s director and producer.

When you meet Blessin, Cori, and Tayla you will see exactly what the world should see more of: the power and promise of young women of color. Their stories are there in every corner of this country. However, most often, they are simply ignored.

It is infectious to watch how the step team’s powerful foot stomping, hand clapping, call and response, and synchronicity morph into deliberate and passionate steps to a brighter future. In fact, the choreography of step goes far beyond the dance floor. Central to the girls’ stories in this film, we are compelled and blown away by the strength of their mothers who share their own aspirations and fears. They open their doors and their hearts to us and we are privileged to witness their fierce devotion and determination. (Cautionary advice: one shouldn’t see this film without an ample supply of tissues.)

 

Cori, Tayla, and Blessin and their families face the kind of systemic barriers and stereotypes, including racism and dire economic circumstances, which would derail even the strongest among us. Yet, like so many of our students, they do not succumb to the pressure of poverty or let it crush their dreams. The dedicated and powerful staff at their school—and at all of our 13 affiliate schools around the country—are the giants in this movie; they are the pillars of support and love that see these young women through.

We know what works in our schools: a solid principal who motivates, a coach who is perceptive and tough, a college counselor whose sole mission is to see that every senior graduates and enrolls in college. Our 18 schools that make up the Young Women’s Leadership Network work every day to upend the college degree divide, because we know that when students move into higher education, they move out of poverty. With more than 8,500 students in our schools, our families know that without college, their daughters and granddaughters will likely be stuck in a modern-day caste system of the haves and the not even close.

An independent study shows that students from our network, The Young Women’s Leadership Schools, not only enroll in college at twice the rate of their peers, they earn bachelor degrees at four times the rate! But numbers don’t tell the full story. Tayla, Cori, and Blessin do—in their own words.

In its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, STEP was an instant sensation. I’m convinced in this era of incivility and rancor, there is a national hunger for our students’ stories of hope and perseverance.

I am confident that the lights will always burn bright for our students, especially because as Blessin so aptly says, “Step taught me if you come together with a group of powerful women, the impact will be immense.”

I am not a movie reviewer, but I do know what STEP symbolizes at its core: in America, when we stop hating and arguing and defeating, only good can happen. The promise of this nation is breathing; and while it may look different, the American dream is alive and can be found in the places you might least expect.

Ann Tisch, President and Founder, Young Women’s Leadership Network

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post and is reposted with permission of the author.


NCGS proudly salutes its member The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women – affectionately known as BLSYW (pronounced “bliss”) – on the success of the film STEP. The long journey to a national release in theaters began with the world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. STEP was selected for the festival from 13,782 submissions.

I was honored to attend the recent Baltimore premiere of STEP as the guest of NCGS Co-Founder Whitty Ransome who serves on the BLSYW Board of Trustees. Former NCGS Trustee Ann Teaff, retired Head of Harpeth Hall, is also a proud member of the BLSYW Board. As I was moved by the film, I was equally moved by Ann’s article, and am grateful for her permission to post it in its entirety on Raising Girls’ Voices.

The NCGS community will have the special opportunity to see the BLSYW step team perform live at the Global Forum on Girls’ Education® II. Be sure to join us in Washington, DC, June 18-20, 2018.

Megan Murphy, Executive Director, NCGS

Girls’ Schools: Where Girls Speak Without Interruption

The New York Times ran last week the article, “The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women.” The article states, “Academic studies and countless anecdotes make it clear that being interrupted, talked over, shut down or penalized for speaking out is nearly a universal experience for women when they are outnumbered by men.”

The article got me thinking about the supportive, inclusive nature of all-girls educational environments. Also, about how deep learning requires an atmosphere of respect that encourages students to engage in dialogue. Girls’ schools are such places.

At an all-girls school, girls take center stage and are encouraged to speak their minds without interruption. We not only observe this daily on our campuses, but research also supports this unique characteristic of girls’ schools. Dr. Rosemary C. Salomone noted, “Single-sex programs…create an institutional and classroom climate in which female students can express themselves freely and frequently, and develop higher order thinking skills.” Girls’ school students self-report the same findings.

According to the High School Survey of Student Engagement data analyzed for Steeped in Learning: The Student Experience at All-Girls Schools, “girls’ school students are more likely than their female peers at coeducational independent and public schools to experience an environment that welcomes an open and safe exchange of ideas.” Nearly 87% of girls’ school students feel their opinions are respected at their school compared to 83% and 58% of girls at coed independent and public schools, respectively.

This experience does not shelter girls’ school students from the real world, but to the contrary better prepares them to find and use their voices beyond the walls of the classroom. As a college professor once shared with NCGS, “I could identify students from girls’ schools on the first day of class. They were the young women whose hands shot up in the air, who were not afraid to defend their positions.”

We are proud of the work of the men and women at our member schools who teach girls there’s enormous potential and power in being a girl. Together, we are raising girls’ voices.


Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools

Summertime Reading for Girls

As another school year winds down, days are filled with final exams and report cards, end-of-year traditions and graduation. Then comes that much need time for rejuvenation and reflection… summer! A time when educators and students alike can relax and lose themselves in a good book — one that doesn’t have a paper or presentation looming at the end of the last page.

As a thought leader in girls’ education, the NCGS Amazon eBookstore features recommended reading lists for educators, students, and parents. NCGS thanks Diana O’Connor, Librarian at Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School for curating this summer’s reading lists for students, which are grouped by grade level. Diana’s selections feature diverse authors and characters, reflecting our global society.

Check out this summer’s lists:

This resource is available to help you identify inspiring selections for your students. In the meantime, I send best wishes for the conclusion of another successful school year, and hope you and your students find the time this summer to relax with a good book!


Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools

Girls’ Schools Redefine Leadership: Part 2 of 2

This article is part two of a two-part series on how leadership is viewed and taught in girls’ schools. Click here to view part one.


An NCGS belief is that one size does not fit all. After all, the premise for single-sex schools is there are some things better suited for a single-gender environment. Therefore, one can conclude girls’ schools are based on the belief that there are many temperaments, talents, and attributes to actualize and an array of approaches and applications that can build up the strengths of our students. This is not to say coeducational institutions believe in one size fits all. As an educator, I have great respect for my colleagues and the ways in which my peers strive to actualize missions specific to their schools.

As I reflect on Susan Cain’s work, I find myself thinking carefully about the range of personalities in our mix. I am grateful for Susan’s deep dive into personalities and leadership. Our schools and professional lives are improved with such contemplations and ensuing dialogues. I am proud NCGS is focusing on civil discourse with this blog series on leadership, and appreciate the opportunity to ponder Susan’s work and the response of my respected colleague Nanci Kauffman by adding my own musings.

When at our best, those of us who claim our craft as educators are carpenters of the heart and mind.  We are child whisperers and claim to know what makes our students—and in the case of NCGS, our girls—tick. We don’t set a timer on the dashboard and use competition to bring out the best in all of our girls; even our extroverts, alphas, and those most comfortable taking healthy risks need “think time.” We don’t view spectating as passive, but in many cases, as a front row seat for the active learner. I agree with Nanci that leadership is not binary. One is not a leader or a follower. In my role as a Head of School, I sometimes lead, sometimes follow, and sometimes get out of the way. I see the same in my colleagues and from our girls. I learn from their ways and journeys on the path towards their maturation and leadership development.

Oftentimes, the true measure of our success and mission delivery is to focus on our graduates. As the Head of St. Paul’s School for Girls (SPSG), I am blown away by our alumnae. I imagine this is not singular to my experience, but rather many of my colleagues at other schools feel the same way and are humbled, proud, and rejuvenated from interactions with their alumnae/i. When I hear how they navigate their lives and make intentional choices, what’s clear to me is they feel they have more autonomy than ever before. Choices are in abundance, but making healthy choices is the key to success. Finding meaning and purpose in one’s life is an area for discussion where our alumnae—no matter their zip code, graduation year, or lifestyle—want to linger.

Our graduates and current students want to serve, to give back, to have empathy for those they claim as a part of their community. Servant leadership is a form of leadership brought to the forefront of SPSG and many girls’ schools which have service learning requirements. For SPSG specifically, our Episcopal identity calls us to give and grow from such service to others. Alumnae share that this “requirement” becomes a lifelong habit of leading through service. I wonder if this is the type of following that might resonate with Susan Cain’s work? Following a cause, a belief, a mission, or a higher calling is not passive. I think Susan wants our students—both boys and girls—to discover themselves through processes and to be less focused upon the product that the college landscape and résumé-building frenzy is leaning towards. Without pause, think time, boredom, discovery, choice, and application of creative thoughts, it’s hard to find meaning in one’s life or to make meaning from one’s experiences. The choice of when to lead by being in front, when to follow by letting others have a turn, and when to get out of the way requires instinct, knowledge of oneself, and permission to make mistakes.

It is a gift—a privilege—to serve through leadership at SPSG, to partner with NCGS, and to act as a catalyst for planting seeds with our colleagues about how we might unravel the leadership labyrinth. In doing so, we will help our students know themselves as evolving and capable citizens, learners, and friends. The last line of St. Paul’s School for Girls’ mission statement reads, “inspire confident leaders to serve in the world.” As such, I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with the girls’ school community members who are, like me, carpenters of hearts and minds.


Penny Evins, Head of School, St. Paul’s School for Girls

Girls’ Schools Redefine Leadership: Part 1 of 2

This article is part one of a two-part series on how leadership is viewed and taught in girls’ schools.


In her recent New York Times op-ed piece, author Susan Cain challenges colleges and universities to reconsider their “glorification” of leadership skills. She points out that the pressure to demonstrate leadership on one’s college application is stressful and leads to résumé building rather than growth and reflection. This perspective resonates with all of us at Castilleja School, and likely with girls’ schools guided by similar missions. However, when Cain asserts that this pressure is particularly troublesome for those whom she calls “natural followers,” our points of view diverge.

At Castilleja, our mission is to “educate motivated young women to become compassionate leaders with a sense of purpose to effect change in the world.” We know many of our peer schools share this commitment to teaching leadership skills to every student. So, let’s consider an alternate perspective on Cain’s observations, beginning by challenging the dichotomy she creates between leader and follower. Consider these situations, in which a young woman transitions from follower and leader, because she possesses a set of leadership skills and actions she has learned at her all-girls school:

At the lunch table, a follower stands by, failing to intervene when a classmate is excluded from joining the table. As a leader, she invites her classmate to take a seat and join the group.

Sleeping over at a friend’s house, a follower “likes” the hurtful comment her friend just posted to Facebook. As a leader, she encourages her friend to delete the hurtful comment by posting a supportive one.

After a school dance, a follower jumps into the backseat of a car with her friends, even though the driver has been drinking. As a leader, she steps out of the car and insists her friends and the driver do the same.

From these examples, it is clear girls’ schools define leadership more broadly than does Cain, who suggests some people simply do not have what it takes to lead. When it was first published in 2013, Castilleja faculty members read Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Fueled by her findings, we committed to cultivate in every girl the power of her leadership potential, regardless of the volume of her voice. From our experience, we have learned that even the quietest introvert will find herself in situations, such as the ones described above, where a personal set of leadership skills can empower her to quietly take action on behalf of others, inspiring those around her to follow her lead. In other words, girls do not need to “stand out” from the crowd as presidents and captains before they can “stand up” for what is right and what is true.

We believe everyone can learn to lead, and we also acknowledge there are times for every leader to become a follower. When a leader we admire and respect takes the reins, we are inspired by her choices, and we are eager to follow. Even those who frequently lead must learn to step back, to follow, and to give an emerging leader the space she needs to guide others and to have an impact. Every girl has much to learn from exercising her potential to lead and from practicing the humility to follow.

Cain suggests that for some, pursuing leadership might be misguided. She describes a high-school girl who loves reading and the cello. Fearful that her lack of leadership experience will limit her college choices, the student tries “to overhaul her personality so she would be selected for a prestigious leadership role as a ‘freshman mentor.’” She is chosen for the program but is eventually kicked out because she isn’t outgoing enough. With guidance from her genetics teacher, she instead decides to pursue her “true calling,” science, and by the age of 18, has published her first scientific paper. At a girls’ school, this young woman’s pursuit of leadership during her freshman year would not be viewed as an unnecessary distraction. Instead, she would be celebrated as a student who took a risk, learned from her failure, and emerged as leader in bioengineering.

Cain sets up another dichotomy, this time between leadership and teamwork, without acknowledging that on great teams, each member has a chance to lead. She recalls watching her sons play soccer and concludes that cooperation among team players, and not leadership, is critical to their success. She describes “each player anticipating the other’s strengths and needs, each shining for the brief instant that he has the ball before passing it to a teammate or losing it to an opponent.” What she does not note however, is that in the brief instant when a player has the ball, she does face a leadership opportunity. She will make a series of decisions, and she will own the outcome. If she hesitates, and looks to someone else for leadership, she may miss the opportunity to score for her team. But if she takes a calculated risk, if she has the courage to trust her own instincts and to make an unexpected choice, she just might score the winning goal. Is she a team player? Yes. Is she also a leader in that moment when the ball is hers? Absolutely.

I agree with Cain’s observation that the glorification of leadership can teach students to be motivated by the spotlight and by the desire to be in charge, rather than by the ideas and the people their leadership would serve. However, this concern is not prevalent at most girls’ schools where students are more likely to pursue leadership when they care deeply about a cause. At Castilleja, leadership takes many forms and is not characterized simply as authority. Throughout her time here, every student is supported and encouraged to develop personal interests, to put forth original ideas about local and global needs, and to inspire others to join her in pursuit of solutions. Leading an ACE Org, as these endeavors are called, is not a power grab for instant gratification. Instead, when a student seeks this kind of leadership role, she demonstrates initiative, she makes a long-term commitment, and she grows in empathy for those she serves and those she engages.

Much of Cain’s frustration with the current emphasis on leadership skills is borne out of her concern that a focus on leadership has added an additional burden on applicants in the college application process. She points out that when colleges stress they are seeking to enroll “citizen leaders,” applicants are padding their résumés instead of engaging in meaningful ways. In her closing, Cain imagines ways to lift this harmful burden. She ponders:

“What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we’re looking for are not leadership skills, but excellence, passion and a desire to contribute beyond the self? What if we said to our would-be leaders, ‘Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand?’”

Cain implies that if colleges would pose these questions, they would encourage students, especially those whom she calls “natural followers,” to make more meaningful choices for themselves. Rather than pursue token leadership positions, students would seek answers to these questions by spending more time discovering their true passions. We agree.

At girls’ schools, these are already the questions we ask our students, and as they reflect on a range of learning experiences across the curriculum, they formulate meaningful answers that illuminate their leadership. These students recognize that the leadership skills they have learned at their girls’ school are in fact the tools they need to effectively “contribute beyond the self,” which for us is the ultimate leadership goal. In this way, leadership is taught, not as a path to wealth and power, as Cain points out, is too often the case, but rather as a journey to discovering the strength and the courage to spend a lifetime taking action, influencing outcomes, and having a lasting impact.


Nanci Kauffman, Head of School, Castilleja School

Growing Up at a Girls’ School

I never could have imagined as a shy four-year-old in 2004, that I would turn into a confident, mature, and independent member of the Class of 2017. Being in an all-girls environment has been an experience of a lifetime. I truly wish I could take full credit for my transformation, but I believe being surrounded by girls who strive to be their best selves are the ones who I should be eternally grateful for. From the sisters that have been with me since our first day in Kindergarten to the ones I met in 9th grade, all of them are a part of the metamorphosis I have gone through.

Growing up in an all-girls environment has taught me two life lessons that, in my opinion, are the hardest to learn: be yourself and pursue all your passions.

Learning these mantras at an early age has helped shape me into who I am today, and who I would like to be in the future. I can’t recall a time when I was afraid to go after my aspirations, because I knew the girls sitting in classrooms with me were just as ambitious. I’ve learned through these lessons that it is the responsibility of the aspirer to go out and seek the necessary resources to pursue their passions.

This year in the Upper School our motto is Make It Happen. These past months I have seen students from freshmen to seniors take the initiative to turn dreams into reality. This energy is infectious, and has been vital to motivating our student body this year. I can honestly say that nothing makes me happier than seeing my fellow classmates and underclassmen putting their best selves forward, and modeling what it means to be a girl today: confident, persistent, and active.

Being surrounded by girls who are eager to make a difference and faculty who provide unconditional support is one of the best feelings in the world.

An all-girls environment is not just academic—it’s having the time of your life free of any judgments, because no matter where you look, everyone is enjoying themselves. Whether it’s having dance parties with your classmates, playing on the field with your fellow teammates, or even coming together for the wonderful traditions that have circulated through generations of women, I have always felt I was part of something bigger than myself because of the bonds I cultivated at school.

Going off to a coed college next year will definitely be an adjustment, but I know this experience has prepared me to put my best self forward and dive into new experiences. For any girl interested in an all-girls school, know that it will immerse you in great life experiences and support you during your self-discovery. Most importantly, you will go through it all with some of your best friends!


Jessiey K., Class of 2017, Kent Place School

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the blog, “Innovation for Brave & Brilliant Girls,” a publication of Kent Place School, and is used with permission.

Imagine a World Where Girls See No Limits

Imagine a world where female athletes, scientists, business executives, and politicians are household names as widely known as their male counterparts. A world where Katherine Johnson is as widely known as John Glenn or where Babe Didrikson Zaharias is as revered as Babe Ruth.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us engage the power of many voices to #BeBoldForChange to strengthen our schools, communities, and world so we no longer imagine girls sharing the spotlight, but see it shine on them equally.

When girls learn about accomplished women, they become more aware of the possibilities in their own lives. Learning about trailblazing women, seeing female heroes, and having female role models inspires girls to set their own brilliant paths. It’s also important for boys to see accomplished women represented so they are aware women are integral in shaping our world.

Teaching our youth about women’s history, showing them examples of high achieving women, and encouraging them to pursue their dreams regardless of gender is vital. Education about the accomplishments and contributions made by women enables both girls and boys to see that gender is not a factor in deciding what you can and can’t pursue in life.

The most powerful message a girl can receive is there are no limits. No limits to what subjects she can study or what career she can pursue. No limits to what sport she can play or role she can occupy. Imagine a world where there are no glass ceilings and no assumptions about what girls like or prefer. No one is saying “that subject is too hard” or “that sport is for boys” or “that position in the student body government is always won by a boy.” Imagine a world where girls challenge limits to explore new possibilities.

Fostering and developing girls’ talents, passions, and dreams will play a critical role toward advancing gender equality. To create future female leaders, we need to energize girls to approach learning with courage, embolden them to pursue their passion even in areas traditionally dominated by men, empower them to run for office, and encourage them to not only imagine, but achieve what the world has never seen. We must #BeBoldForChange.


Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools

 

Girls’ Schools Teach Girls They ARE Smart

A recent report published in the journal Science suggests girls as young as 6 can be led to believe men are inherently smarter and more talented than women, discouraging girls from pursuing “many prestigious careers.”

A co-author of the study states, “As a society, we associate a high level of intellectual ability with males more than females, and our research suggests that this association is picked up by children as young [as] 6 and 7.”

We would not disagree, but we know places where this societal norm is challenged and questioned daily: girls’ schools.

Whether they want to be astronauts, ambassadors, authors, or attorneys, girls need to know—not just think, but truly know, deep down—nothing stands in their way. Girls’ schools send that message to girls every day. Girls’ schools provide an inspirational environment where girls take center stage, build self-confidence, develop leadership skills, and set higher aspirations.

In an all-girls school, a girl and her unique capabilities are embraced for what they are and not limited to what society expects them to be. In the study Women Graduates of Single-Sex and Coeducational High Schools, Dr. Linda Sax of the University of California, Los Angeles found a majority of girls’ school graduates report both higher academic and intellectual self-confidence over their coed school counterparts.

An all-girls educational environment provides opportunities for girls during a critical time in their growth and development. At a girls’ school, a girl occupies every role: every part in the play, every seat on the student government, every position on every sports team. Not only does she have many avenues for self-exploration and development, she has a wealth of peer role models. Girls need to “see it, to be it” and learning about women who have shaped our schools and world makes girls more aware of the possibilities in their own lives and helps them set their own brilliant paths.

The most powerful message a girl can receive is there are no limits to what subjects she can study or career she can pursue – whether that be in business, communications, the law, politics, civil engineering, or computer science. At girls’ schools, there are no glass ceilings and no assumptions about what girls like or prefer because no one is saying “that subject is for boys” or “that subject is too hard.”

When you combine strong female mentors and positive role models, reduced gender stereotyping in curriculum and classroom, and abundant learning opportunities, the results are clear. Girls at girls’ schools don’t doubt they are smart, because their schools send them the message every day that they ARE smart.


Martha Perry ’85, Principal, St. Clement’s School and Board of Trustees President, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools and Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools

All-Girls Schools: From a Male Perspective

When working in girls’ schools we are often asked how an all-girls educational environment can prepare girls for the “real world”— a world that’s coed. This question infers that opportunities for cooperative, positive interactions between girls and boys are not available for students attending all-girls schools. What the inquirer is not considering, however, are the numerous healthy, constructive co-curricular opportunities available to the girls, such as joint service programs, choirs, theater productions, debates, school dances, field trips, etc. The question also glosses over the male role models in the girls’ lives, both in their schools—faculty, administrators, coaches—and personal lives—fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, and friends.

As a leading advocate, NCGS seeks to engage the power of many voices to strengthen our schools, communities, and world. We are a coalition of educators—women and men—with a shared commitment to the education and healthy development of girls. With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to hear directly from male voices in our girls’ school community.

I had the pleasure of hearing from Paul Burke, Vice President of the NCGS Board of Trustees and Head of The Nightingale-Bamford School, along with Jamie O’Donnell, a current Nightingale parent. Paul and Jaime shared perspectives from their unique vantage points: the male head of an all-girls institution and as fathers who selected an all-girls education for their daughters.


MEGAN MURPHY: How do you respond when you are asked what it’s like being a male head of an all-girls school?

PAUL BURKE: I typically offer a two-part response. First, I hearken back to my decision to apply for the Nightingale Head of School post in 2011. Nightingale initially hired me in 2008 as a division head, and I did not think at the time I would become Head of School, primarily because of my gender. The school never had a male Head of School.

Ultimately, I decided to apply because I felt a genuine connection to the mission of the school. I also believed that girls need to know there are men, as well as women, who are so invested in their success they are willing to dedicate their professional lives to them. A recent Harvard Business Review piece entitled “The Men Who Mentor Women” makes several key points along these lines. According to their study of Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations, male champions “have learned that gender inclusiveness means involving both men and women in advancing women’s leadership.”

NCGS advocates for girls’ schools because it believes an all-girls environment is the best way to educate girls, and in doing so we give them a better chance to overcome institutional and cultural biases. A good girls’ school also tells its graduates they never walk alone. The bonds the girls form at girls’ schools are as lasting as they are distinct. They exist within the sisterhood of peers, but also across generational lines with teachers—female and male—many of whom are there for them for life.

Second, over time I have come to realize my leadership of Nightingale has had an unanticipated and unplanned benefit. Namely, it is not about me.

The girls are our school’s most important leaders.

Every year I host the seniors for a leadership retreat where this message is made clear and real. I have changed several of our key assemblies to amplify their voices. Our school’s convocation used to have an address from the Head of School as its cornerstone. Now we have four speakers: a fourth grader, an eighth grader, a senior, and an alumna. The girls are reminded that it is their school. When Madeleine Albright visited Nightingale, she was introduced by a middle school girl and interviewed by upper school girls. This decision was an obvious one. When the first female Secretary of State comes to a girls’ school, she should be talking with girls. My guess, however, is that if I were leading a co-ed or a boys’ school, I would have happily played a more prominent role, when my most useful position is really to the side and comfortably off-stage.

Leading a girls’ school obligates me to be more thoughtful in these moments and I think ultimately gives me a better chance of doing the job of leading others in the service of girls’ education.

MEGAN: Do you consider yourself a feminist, and if so, what does that term mean to you?

PAUL: I am with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote We Should All Be Feminists. (Check out her TED Talk if you have not seen it yet. We showed it to our middle and upper school students this fall. It is well worth your time.)

Teachers and school leaders forsake the incentives other professions may bring. In the case of girls’ school educators it has to be—in part at least—about making the world fairer for women. As Adichie says, “For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem acknowledge that.”

In this sense, girls’ schools are an outgrowth of the culture that surrounds us: we divide human beings into two groups—boys who can’t come and girls who can. Step inside our schoolhouse doors, however, and you see an environment that is decidedly countercultural. These girls at Nightingale are not only included, they are celebrated and embraced—sometimes literally, always metaphorically.

As the cliché goes, when it comes to inclusivity and learning, we are all on a journey. This is humbling stuff, and teachable moments occur in the Head’s office as much as they do in kindergarten classrooms and every space in between. I have much to learn from my colleagues. Nightingale’s very best teachers craft lessons and utilize pedagogy that promote gender equity. Sometimes it is what they teach. Other times it is how they teach. At all times, it is who they are. They are fully on board, and the girls know it.

MEGAN: In your tenure as a girls’ school educator, how have girls’ schools evolved as we continually learn more about how girls learn best?

PAUL: It is a thrilling time to be in education. Change is afoot. At our school, change is being led via a reconsideration of assessment. We made the decision to step away from AP exams last fall and are moving into a period when teachers in our Upper School, and indeed throughout our school, are reconsidering how best to assess girls’ understanding. Teachers are leaning into more collaboration with peers, across disciplines and divisions, and they are asking the same of the girls. Part of this is driven by broader trends in education, but part of it comes from more fully leveraging what we know about how girls learn best. Anecdotes and experience combined with research all indicate that girls love to learn together, and in partnership with a caring teacher. Simple to state, hard to enact.

A reconsideration of assessment obligates a reconsideration of the entire enterprise. This is not necessarily revolutionary, nor should it be, but it is decidedly evolutionary and very much in step with the times. Curricula for girls should have equal parts responsibility and adventure. We are responsible for preparing girls for what the world is asking of them. Providing girls with more team-based, “real-world” assessments not only works in the moment, but it prepares them for where they are going.

At the heart of the entire enterprise lies a relationship between a teacher and a student, which is central to any good education, but that much more critical in a girls’ school. Because this is so obviously true, I believe it goes unexplored and therefore untapped, or at least not fully realized. We turn then to the social-emotional benefits of being cared for and known in a classroom. This is vitally important, but incomplete. I think girls’ schools should lead the way in thinking about how a relationship between a teacher and her students advances learning and accomplishment for girls.

This is not new, of course. I believe Socrates had some thoughts on it. Still, the realities of life in 2017 should encourage us to return to this question with fresh eyes and armed with our knowledge of what works best for girls. Let’s consider this together.

MEGAN: How do you involve male role models, particularly fathers, in the life of a girls’ school?

PAUL: Honestly, I am not sure I think about this enough. Perhaps I should! I think more about providing the girls with female role models via a speaker series or in other positions of leadership in the school.

I do, however, think I can be helpful to Nightingale fathers, particularly since I am one. My daughter is in our second grade. I notice things, and reflect them back to fathers in ways that are hopefully useful. To give one small example that may prove the broader point:

I greet the girls in the morning by shaking their hands at the schoolhouse doors. In a wholly unscientific way, I noticed Nightingale fathers seemed to be less inclined to wear Nightingale paraphernalia—hats, sweatshirts, scarfs, etc.—than were mothers. At an address to Lower School parents I said I believe it is important for all parents to indicate their pride in their daughters’ school. Wear that Nightingale hat. Show up at our Homecoming game. Let her know that you are as invested in her school as any other in your life—whether it be your own alma mater or another child’s school.

Soon thereafter sales for male gear at our school store increased, which was not only good news for our Parent Association—it was significant for Nightingale girls to see evidence that fathers were fully involved in their life’s journey.


MEGAN: Why did you decide an all-girls school was right for your family?

JAMIE O’DONNELL: The first part of any school choice is to decide on a school that is both qualitatively excellent and offers the best fit for the student. In our daughter’s case, we discovered in Nightingale-Bamford a truly excellent school, one where the approach to education held by administrators, staff, and teachers fosters an ability to learn in a supportive and encouraging environment. This resonated strongly with us, and we felt the school would be a wonderful fit.

The “all-girls” part of the decision is of course significant in its own right. We concluded an all-girls environment for our daughter would enhance the strengths and approach to education Nightingale offers. We believed an all-girls environment would enable the girls and young women to focus on school—academics, arts, activities, social life, and sports—without the distractions that a coed education can bring. Participation, intellectual curiosity, confidence, friendship—all of these seem better able to develop and grow more fully in an all-girls school. Three years into our daughter’s girls’ school experience, we feel this part of the decision has absolutely proven correct.

MEGAN: How do you respond to fellow parents who say girls won’t be prepared for the real world, which is coed, if they attend an all-girls school?

JAMIE: It is easy to point to the research and anecdotal evidence supporting that an all-girls education develops individuals well-prepared to flourish outside of school and later in life. Single-sex education, whether for boys or girls, is not a vacuum. The students have plenty of opposite sex exposure in their lives, ranging from teachers in class to siblings at home. School is not 100% of their lives. But in the classroom and around the school, an all-girls experience enables the girls and young women to grow as individuals with wonderful amounts of confidence and curiosity. If that is the result, how can someone be ill-prepared for “the real world”?

MEGAN: What are the ways in which you think your daughter is benefiting from her all-girls experience?

JAMIE: Our daughter attended coed schools until Grade 5 when we moved to New York and discovered Nightingale. Coeducation was fine, and our daughter had and maintains close friendships with many boys who were her classmates. After entering an all-girls environment, however, we have noticed our daughter has an enhanced sense of self and sense of possibility—a feeling that she can try or tackle anything. Maybe this is in part to her growing a bit older, but we attribute it to being in all-girls environment where she is encouraged to believe she can achieve what she sets out to accomplish.

I believe our daughter has benefited greatly across a wide spectrum of facets—confidence to pursue her interests and develop intellectual curiosity; greater confidence to pursue a range of activities based on her own initiative (without parental pushing); greater confidence to engage in social settings whether with peers or adults; and confidence to form close friendships with many different girls in her class and around school. It is actually a long list of things! The common word is “confidence,” as I believe an all-girls environment has allowed her to develop this characteristic in herself, and this manifests itself in many ways. Much can be attributed to the excellent education and support Nightingale provides, and I do believe the all-girls environment is the wonderful underpinning that accelerated this growth.


Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools