Midtown: Community

Girls’ school leaders build partnerships

My first visit to St. Mary’s School since its new leader, Monica Gillespie, came on board left me and everybody in the room excited about the relationships and partnerships that are creating mutual benefits in our community.

Among those around the table: Gillespie, who became St. Mary’s 13th head of school on July 1; Teresa Pierrie, principal of the Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy, the county’s first all-girls public school; and Lynne Thomson, principal of St. Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School near Perth, Australia.

Conversations weaved through philosophies on single-gender education and American educators’ push to move immediately from high school to college. In Australia, it is popular to take a “gap year,” which gives students time to make decisions about academic paths. The women also discussed unique, safe spaces for learning leadership and relationship-building that single-gender education can provide girls. And there was plenty of exchange about the need to share best practices.

“We want what’s best for all of our kids,” Gillespie said. “It’s not zero-sum. Anything that enhances your school enhances our community. It’s all boats rise.”

Stepping into a new arena for herself and Wake schools, Pierrie has welcomed the philosophy of sharing coming from St. Mary’s. The independent Episcopal school has educated girls for 170 years through boarding and day programs.

“The immediate thought was to go somewhere where it has been done successfully for generations,” said Pierrie, a 27-year veteran of Wake schools known by education leaders for innovation. “St. Mary’s opened its doors.”

St. Mary’s first invitation to Pierrie came when the school held a public discussion with Dr. Leonard Sax, an expert on single-gender education.

On this visit, Pierrie, whose school is housed on the campus of the Governor Morehead School for the Deaf and Blind, also homed in on St. Mary’s “culture of honor” and its signature advisory program that links girls with an instructor and fellow students daily. It’s a partnership that lasts for their time at the school in which bonds are formed and helps ensure “no girl falls through a crack,” said Mary Virginia Swain, a St. Mary’s spokeswoman and college alumna.

“We’re really listening,” Pierrie said. “We’re going forward with all sorts of ideas.”

Speaking of leadership and action, Thomson said, “One of the big things about girls’ schools is the development of relationships.”

Having the whole staff at St. Mary’s in Australia tuned in to the importance of developing relationships with students and helping them navigate their relationships with others “gives girls the strength and increasing resilience to go into the wider society and continue growing,” Thomson said.

Gillespie chimed in: “They need to see us struggle” with decisions and life’s curveballs. At St. Mary’s in Raleigh, she added, girls have the space to be creative and to be risk takers. So does she and so do the rest of the school’s faculty and staff.

Karsten Tyson, a ninth-year World Language Instructor at St. Mary’s, knows the difference it makes firsthand.

“When I was in the public school system, I just didn’t feel as connected with the students,” said Tyson, adding that he, by nature, may offer a “hard and stoic” exterior that students learn to comprehend and penetrate.

“It’s good to be in an environment where students can have multiple examples of good relationships and positive role models they can relate to simply because there is that connection,” Tyson said. “That’s how our world operates, based on a system of relationships.”

With Gillespie’s experience as a school leader passionate about creating exchange programs, much of the conversation also centered on what’s to come of the relationship between the two St. Mary’s schools.

“People talk about globalization, but the world doesn’t always get on that well,” Thomson said.

Gillespie added: “But when you go to a country and live in someone else’s shoes, that is what makes you think differently about life.

“There’s always something different,” she said, noting “different” doesn’t mean right or wrong, it means exposure to other cultures, other ideas, other ways of life, learning and leadership. “Imagine Raleigh with young women who have had that experience. It’s one of many ways we can help our girls.”

The willingness of St. Mary’s leaders to share and explore more ways to extend the school’s reach beyond its walls and abroad helps our community.

“We’re happy to share what people here have worked really hard to create over many, many years,” said alumna Swain. “We’re happy for other schools to model and present those best practices.

“A norm for us is sharing.”