In a world where women are increasingly pursuing leadership roles, it’s critical to have environments where they are both supported and shown firsthand that it is possible to take control of their own lives and careers. Nashville’s college preparatory all-girls school, Harpeth Hall, provides exactly that kind of guidance and ecosystem for young girls and women. As Head of School Jess Hill explains, “There is never a reticence in terms of our students raising their hands in the college classroom after they graduate because they’re used to carrying the day.”
According to the National Coalition of Girls Schools (NCGS), the benefits of an all-girls academic environment are many, among them being “a girl can comprehend her value and her capabilities in ways that have nothing to do with how she looks or whom she dates. Not only is she not in a bubble, she’s utterly free to do anything and everything she wants. She can experiment and explore, trying out new things and trying on new identities.” In terms of hard facts, NCGS cites one highly impressive statistic: Nearly 100% of girls’ school graduates go on to college. (Find additional research on the NCGS website HERE.)
Jess, who is funny, sharp, and self-deprecating, was first hired at Harpeth Hall 24 years ago as a math teacher in the upper school, a position she held for a decade. The power of an all-girls environment was apparent to her right from the get-go after attending and teaching at a co-ed school in Atlanta, Georgia. Her observation was that, due to an all-girls environment, the girls felt empowered and viewed as individuals. “I realized immediately how different each of the 16 girls was in my classes,” she explains.
Serving on committees throughout the years helped Jess see that while she loved the classroom she also liked seeing the school through larger lenses. Since becoming Head of School in 2018, she has worked hard to create a community where each girl is embraced for her unique qualities. “The common thread between our students is they are excited about learning,” she explains. Equally, Jess, who is proud of the school’s 154-year-old history, never rests on her laurels but is rather resolute in finding ways to improve the academic system. With the city of Nashville constantly in flux, the legacy values of Harpeth Hall have become even more important to her. “We began with a vision to offer girls equal academic experiences to boys, which at the time was revolutionary, and those progressive and innovative roots are still present today,” she explains.
Most recently, Jess has been implementing ways to shift what is now culturally called the “confidence gap,” which she first became aware of after she and a group of Harpeth Hall teachers read an Atlantic Magazine article on the topic. After doing some research, they discovered that the five inhibitors their students struggled with were perfectionism, sensitivity to criticism, fear of failure, language of self-doubt and comparison, the latter of which is increasingly threatening with the popularity of social media. To tweak the culture, Jess posted signs with the word “perfect” slashed out on them to remind students that risk-taking took higher priority than success. Her goal is that once they enter the working world they will be less afraid to ask for raises or be real with their peers in regards to their failures. Whether it is the Winterim program, where students attend job internships and study abroad, or the Global Scholars Program in which they conduct independent studies, lead discussions and present capstone projects, Jess wants the students of Harpeth Hall to graduate prepared for the real world.
Similarly, Ellen Green Hoffman, Vice-President and financial advisor at First Tennessee Bank, agrees that an all-girls academic environment has been instrumental in her success. Since graduating in 2004, Ellen has chaired reunions and served on the Young Alumnae Council to stay engaged. As she also currently expects a daughter, she has been reflecting on how taking gender out of the equation allowed her to focus on herself. Seeing women in leadership roles during her formative years also eliminated any doubts that she could also one day find herself in a high-performing position.
“I always believed that I was meant to do great things and make a difference in society because of my education at Harpeth Hall,” she explains.
During Ellen’s senior year, she obtained an internship at a bond-trading desk on Wall Street, which gave her direct experience in different work environments. She attributes the positive feedback she received from her superiors as giving her the confidence to work on Wall Street during the financial crisis at age 22. “Once I arrived, I knew I could do it,” she says. She had full faith that she would thrive. Equally, she was praised for her poise and ability to try on different perspectives, which she believes was woven into the culture at Harpeth Hall. “In classroom discussions, everyone’s opinion was not only asked for but also respected,” she says.
Likewise, Crissy Wieck, Senior Vice President of Sales for Western Express, who graduated in 1996, cherishes her education at Harpeth Hall — perhaps because her family sacrificed so their daughter could attend what they deemed to be the best school in Nashville. “During my developmental years at Harpeth Hall I witnessed women making communities better,” she says.
She applauds the bonding experience of attending an all-girls school that resulted in many lifelong friendships. Crissy becomes sentimental when recalling a birthday party she attended long ago. Of the 24 girls who were present, she still sees 10 regularly. She also addresses the shock she felt while attending Maryville College in East Tennessee to see that she was the only female student to voice her opinion. “While self-expression was foreign to the other women, it was familiar to me,” she says.
Yet, as Crissy explains, the servant leaders at Harpeth Hall demonstrated their power in subtle ways. By watching them, she learned how to listen, collaborate, and communicate with others, which has been vital to her own success. She understood early on that there is no right answer, but rather a right way to discuss.
Along those same lines, Kristen Barrett, a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia where she is also an English major and drama minor, has fond memories of the Harkness Discussions at Harpeth Hall, where teachers gave the class control and calculated who spoke. “Those conversations reminded everyone to be cognizant of not being a hog or a log,” she explains, a mindset that has parlayed perfectly into her college lectures.
Kristen, who was home-schooled prior to attending Harpeth Hall, is appreciative of how she was able to focus on her personal development in an all-girls setting. She credits Harpeth Hall with boosting her academic and emotional intelligence. Very active in theater, Kristen also had the opportunity to connect with her female classmates and develop friendships with the boys at Montgomery Bell Academy. Keeping her priorities straight while still interacting with young men taught her how to healthfully navigate both platonic and romantic relationships as an adult.
Jennifer Adams, Director of Community Support and Inclusion, who was hired 21 years ago at Harpeth Hall, wanted to work there so badly that she commuted between Nashville and Birmingham, Alabama, her first year. Today, in her current role, her goal is to create a community where the girls can grow up at a proper pace and explore the many facets of their personalities. “The great thing about Harpeth Hall is that students think it is cool to do well at school,” she says. In the all-girls environment, Jennifer has seen her own daughter, a senior, come out of her shell. She speculates this stems from the emphasis on leadership defined by doing the right thing in every situation rather than trying to be a hero. From classes like Life-Balance that teach girls practical skills for conflict resolution to the way in which Harpeth Hall students are taught every tactic is meant to help knowledge stick. “When they get into a situation post-graduation, we want them to say, “I have this knowledge in my back pocket and know what to do here,” she says.
“There is growing research on brain development in boys and girls and the way they learn,” Jennifer continues. “Harpeth Hall teachers are experienced at teaching in an all-girls culture and planning lessons and projects specifically for how girls learn best. Cumulatively our teaching faculty bring more than 1,300 years of experience at Harpeth Hall, ranging in tenure from year one to more than 30 years of teaching at this school. Additionally, we offer our faculty and staff professional development opportunities specifically for teachers and administrators in all-girls schools.”
Lastly, as Wellesley L. Wilson, Director of Admission and Financial Aid, explains, the school wants to make their academic program accessible to anyone regardless of their economic status. Early on, Wellesley, who was active in the admissions office at her school as a high school tour guide, developed a love for meeting families and seeing if the academic setting matched their needs. She adores her current role at Harpeth Hall, which allows her to contribute firsthand to student composition and how it reflects the city in which Harpeth Hall operates. “It was clear from day one that everyone on campus was knowledgeable about the mission of the school as well as happy to be there,” she explains. Seeing girls on the patio dancing to music along with their advisors sealed the deal for Wellesley to want to work there.
Her team is responsible for the recruitment and retention of students, and she ensures that in the Harpeth Hall Admissions process, finances are not a part of the equation due to their “need blind” financial aid program, which means anyone who wants the full Harpeth Hall experience has a fair shot at receiving it. “Our goal is to make sure that anyone who wants to be here feels encouraged to apply,” she explains, citing a number of funds that cover tuition, textbooks, uniforms, and laptops.
However, it is still meeting families individually that keeps Wellesley reminded of the purpose behind her job. As demonstrated by the “Whole Girl” admissions process, her team thinks about what each student’s experience will be like at Harpeth Hall from a holistic perspective by paying attention to her mental wellness and academics. Spending quality time with both the student and parent is how Wellesley understands, from a bird’s eye view, how to best serve them. “The highlight of my day is talking with a 9-year-old and learning what is top of mind for her,” she says. In these deep dives, she also learns how to better serve the entire Harpeth Hall community.
Her discovery is that students want an environment in which their opinions matter. While most families are attracted to Harpeth Hall for the academic rigor, they are often delighted to witness the breadth of knowledge gained beyond the classroom.
Speaking to the academic sisterhood of Harpeth Hall, Wellesley concludes: “Being specified in our approach both academically and emotionally is a true gift.”
To learn more about Harpeth Hall and to find out if an all-girls education is right for your daughter, visit HarpethHall.org.
This article is sponsored by Harpeth Hall.