In her book The Maytrees, author Annie Dillard describes a scene between two characters: “Under her high brows, she eyed him straight on and straight across. She had gone to girls’ schools, he recalled later. Those girls looked straight at you.”
It’s a quote that resonates with the educational professionals at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, an all-girls Memphis private school established in 1847. From their early childhood program, which builds on girls’ higher verbal abilities at a younger age, through high school, where girls are taught to be confident, compassionate and prepared — in short, to look straight at challenges and situations and meet them head-on. Join us as we take a closer look at the educational opportunities offered by an all-girls’ school, and learn from two alumnae exactly how their years at St. Mary’s benefitted them.
One of the biggest benefits of an all-girls education is an increase in confidence, according to a study published by CRC Health. Boys can be a distraction and may tend to dominate classroom discussions and extra-curricular activities. In an all-girl environment, girls take on all the positions of leadership, both in the classroom and outside endeavors.
“Girls’ schools create a culture of achievement where girls take center stage,” explains Hilary Robinson, Head of St. Mary’s Lower School. “We teach girls that they are capable and even powerful because they are girls.”
Another advantage of single-sex schools is that teaching methods can be adjusted to the students. Teachers can take advantage of the specific – and different – ways that boys and girls learn, with a curriculum that sparks excitement, curiosity and creativity. “Girls’ and boys’ brains are scientifically different,” continues Hilary. “By focusing on best practices for teaching girls, we can more readily assist them in meeting their academic, social and emotional potential.”
Girls reach a higher level of growth in an environment free of limitations and bias, adds science teacher Carrie Ruhland. Studies show that girls will excel in areas that they have traditionally shied away from, like math and science. At St. Mary’s, students begin taking a wide array of subjects from an early age – ballet and Robotics, drama and sports, art and STEM. There are no assumptions made about what girls like or prefer. Each girl is seen as unique, and the goal is for every girl to find her passion and discover the tools to excel.
“There are as many paths through St. Mary’s as there are students,” explains Nicole Hernandez, Director of Admission and Financial Aid. Realizing that the student body is made up of many different types of learners and allowing girls opportunities to steer their own learning experience is a key part of the success of the school.
Looking back on her years at St. Mary’s, Vice President of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare Jennilyn Jennings Utkov says she appreciates the individual focus and encouragement she received from teachers. Whatever the challenge, she learned how to achieve results, a lesson that has served her well both professionally and personally. “The teachers took a genuine interest in all the students. They knew our strengths, our weaknesses and our capabilities – and they personally coached us to achieve to our potential,” says Jennilyn. “Being held to high St. Mary’s expectations, in a very supportive environment helped me to expect and shoot for my best effort.”
The environment benefits teachers as well. “I taught in a co-educational school in middle and high school – the hardest job I ever had,” says Dr. Dalton Lyon, Chair of the U.S. History Department. “I spent a large part of my time in classroom management. The beauty of St. Mary’s is that I spend nearly 100% of my time teaching and very little time on managing the classrooms.”
From his perspective as a teacher and a parent of two current St. Mary’s students, Dalton says he sees the girls presenting a true version of themselves, comfortable and confident in their own skin. Sensitive topics are discussed with ease and maturity, and with an openness not typically found in a co-educational school.
“Girls are very verbal and love discussion,” adds Hilary. “We offer many opportunities to talk in the classroom, and we encourage students to understand WHY things work, not just HOW.”
St. Mary’s is very intentional about developing the whole girl, and a stellar academic program is a big component. “Our average ACT scores, college acceptances, and college scholarships are second to none,” says Assistant Head of School Dr. Laura Leathers. “Developing skills early in childhood and offering a wide array of subjects to investigate is a critical part, and by high school, we are able to meet the students where their interests are and give them even more opportunities to grow.”
In addition to academic excellence, the school focuses on character. In the lower school, the weekly chapel service and on-going character education program, The Bridge to Caring, nurtures students spiritually and guides them to discover the importance of respect, kindness, courage, thankfulness, honesty and cooperation. It leads the girls into the robust Honor Code established for the middle and upper grades. Upper school classmates invest time and effort in the St. Mary’s Community Fund, a student-led organization that raises money and awards grants to local agencies that work with children and promotes community service through hands-on volunteerism.
“St. Mary’s is the best preparatory school for college and life in Memphis,” says alumna Alexia Crump, Assistant District Attorney General in the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office. “I say ‘life’ because although the academic environment is famously challenging and rigorous, St. Mary’s offers more than that. The school has an uncanny ability to instill a strong, continuing sense of motivation and desire to do well in school, college and future professional pursuits. St. Mary’s girls are always motivated in everything they do, and they have a philanthropic desire to help others in the community who are in need.”
Alexia credits St. Mary’s for teaching her the ability to handle stress and perform well under pressure – and she says she still relies on the time management skills she learned at school. “I learned the importance of organization, preparation, excellent writing skills and the ability to think on my feet when required,” she adds.
As the oldest independent school in the state of Tennessee, St. Mary’s has served generations of families throughout the years. Appreciative alumnae and teachers send their daughters to St. Mary’s, evidenced by just a few people interviewed for this article. An alum herself, Hilary chose St. Mary’s for her daughter. Nicole is the mother of three current students, and Carrie has two. Alexia’s 4-year-old will be in the class of 2034. The school currently serves 825 students from 36 ZIP codes.
Indeed, the benefits of an all-girls education, combined with the school’s signature academic excellence and focus on the needs of the whole girl, make St. Mary’s an amazing place to send the young ladies of Memphis. To find out more about St. Mary’s or to schedule a tour, visit stmarysschool.org.
This article is sponsored by St. Mary’s Episcopal School. All photography provided by St. Mary’s Episcopal School.