Many families at this time of year are carefully considering their options in preparation for their daughters to transition next year from preschool to elementary, elementary to middle school, or middle to high school. Families are reviewing websites, submitting applications, attending open houses, touring classrooms, and making their pros and cons lists comparing different school options. They are asking themselves, “Which school is right for my daughter? Which school will best engage, challenge, inspire, and prepare her for university and beyond?”
NCGS Executive Director Megan Murphy was interviewed recently by colleagues at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child, and here are some of her reflections on what makes girls’ schools in the NCGS network unique and so effective for the education and healthy development of young women.
Q. What do you see as the biggest opportunities for girls’ schools?
A. Girls’ schools are more relevant today than ever before as we prepare girls to become the influential contributors and leaders our world needs. There’s a robust global conversation around women playing a fuller role in society from boardrooms to government, from soccer fields to finance, from closing the gender pay gap to having a seat at the table. It is more important than ever to listen, foster, and amplify the voices of girls and young women—and to encourage them to assert their voices to stand up and be counted. Girls’ schools do exactly that.
Girls’ schools prepare girls to become women who live lives of commitment and contribution by fostering their voices at a young age. At girls’ schools, students are encouraged—really, expected—to speak their minds. A national survey found that nearly 87% of girls’ school students feel their voices are respected compared to 58% of girls at coed schools.
Girls’ schools are also impacting society’s lack of women going into STEM-related fields. In addition to the arts and humanities, girls’ schools have a long history of engaging girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects. Girls’ schools are leading the way in STEM education for women with graduates being six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology and three times more likely to consider majoring in engineering compared to girls who attended coed schools.
Q. What are the top issues facing girls’ schools today?
A. A recent survey of NCGS member schools showed girls’ school educators want to better understand and actively address anxiety among students; the impact of social media on girls; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and developing leaders and global citizens who have the essential skills needed to navigate an increasingly complex and polarized world.
Q. You recently wrote about the importance of mentoring young girls. Who do you think are the best role models today?
A. The best role models for girls are the ones they see every day: at school on the playground, in the advanced calculus and physics courses, in the art studio, on the theatre stage, at swim practice, at Girl Scout meetings, and on the robotics team. Girls need role models to help them become their best selves. It is critical and powerful for girls “to see it in order to be it.” Research has found positive female role models are essential for girls to grow into confident women, especially as they choose university majors and career paths that are needed in today’s world. When girls and young women have strong female mentors and positive role models starting at formative ages in the classroom and their school community, we can better prepare them to tackle their future with confidence and imagination.
Q. How should girls’ schools empower young female voices today?
A. Just by the nature of being in an all-girls educational environment, girls are getting more opportunities to develop and assert their voices.
“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,” noted a New York Times article. Deep learning requires an atmosphere of respect that encourages students to engage in dialogue. Girls’ schools are such places.
Research supports that girls’ schools provide an “institutional and classroom climate in which female students can express themselves freely and frequently and develop higher order thinking skills.”
Girls’ schools can further empower girls by providing opportunities for girls to try new challenges. The best way for young and adolescent girls to establish their convictions, and then to develop the confidence and tools to be heard, is to be part of an environment where a girl and her unique capabilities are embraced for what they are and not limited to what society expects them to be.
The most powerful message a girl can receive is there are no limits to what subjects she can study or careers she can pursue. At girls’ schools, there are no glass ceilings and no assumptions about what girls excel at or prefer. Girls’ school students develop the confidence to take healthy risks such as engaging in advanced level courses, playing different sports, taking on leadership roles, and joining extracurricular clubs. By providing these opportunities for girls to challenge themselves, girls’ school students are encouraged to stand up and speak up.
Q. Where do you see the most room for growth programmatically at girls’ schools?
A. Programmatically, I encourage girls’ schools to continue addressing one of the issues facing girls’ schools today: the need to develop leaders and global citizens who have the essential skills needed to navigate an increasingly complex and polarized world. Among these essential skills are valuing cultural competency, developing global citizenship, and fostering political engagement—three areas in which research tells us that girls’ schools are making great strides.
A recently released study found that girls’ school graduates display higher levels of cultural competency, express stronger community involvement, and exhibit increased political engagement. For example, when asked about their ability to work and live in a diverse society, alumnae from all-girls schools are more likely than their coed school peers to have the goal to help promote racial understanding. Girls’ school graduates are also more likely to find it essential to keep current with political affairs and to have political discussions in class and with friends.
Q. What are the similarities you see at many of the girls’ schools you visit?
A. Though girls’ schools around the world are remarkably diverse, the common denominator is a deep commitment to expertise in girls’ learning and their healthy development. Regardless of a school’s location, size, or governance, at the heart of every girls’ school are core values that include community and collaboration, opportunity and innovation, leadership and integrity, and self-efficacy and agency.
Globally, girls’ schools engage the power of many voices to strengthen not only the schools but also the communities they serve and the world at large. Girls’ school educators create spaces that challenge limits so girls will imagine and explore new possibilities. All-girls schools in our network inspire the next generation of young women to lead with courage, competence, and empathy and prepare them for lives of commitment, confidence, contribution, and fulfillment.
Q. What do you think is the biggest misconception out there about girls’ schools?
A. Some families think all-girls schools are bubbles that somehow render girls ill-prepared for coed life. When in actuality, this could not be further from the truth.
Girls’ school students live in a world that include boys and men every day—faculty in the classroom, coaches on the field, peers in extracurricular activities, friends and family at home. These interactions are bolstered by girls’ school environments, which are places that create inspiring cultures of achievement allowing girls to take on leadership roles, exercise their voice, build self-confidence, collaborate in teams, and grow to their full potential. All skills and characteristics each young woman will take with her into the world beyond her school.
In an all-girls school, a girl can comprehend her value and her capabilities in ways that have nothing to do with how she looks or how she is perceived by boys. She can be free to explore and try new opportunities, inside and outside of the classroom. She can follow her ambitions without wasting a second thought or a backward glance on how her male counterparts might perceive her.
Q. What is your favorite aspect of the all-girls environment?
A. At the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, we believe a school for girls is better than a school with girls.
Girls’ schools are places where girls take center stage: in everything. Girls occupy every seat in student government, every spot on the math team, and every position on the athletic field. By subtracting boys, an all-girls education adds opportunities for girls. Every aspect of a girls’ school—from the classroom to the community spaces to the academic program—is designed for girls.
Whether a girl wants to be an astronaut or an ambassador, an author or an attorney, girls need to know—not just think, but really know deep down—there is nothing that can stand in their way. That is the incredibly important message girls’ schools send to girls each and every day.
That message, embedded in the nature of girls’ schools, provides powerful, relevant advantages and creates the best environments for girls to learn, grow, and develop.
Q. What would you say to someone who is on the fence about sending their daughter to an all-girls school?
A. I encourage parents to consider these questions about their daughter’s current experience when they are on the fence about sending their daughter to an all-girls school:
- Are girls engaged, called upon, and encouraged to participate equally in classroom activities?
- Are girls actively and equally involved in student leadership opportunities? Are girls elected as class presidents? Are they editors of the student newspaper? Are women in leadership positions on the faculty, administration, and coaching staff?
- Does the curriculum incorporate female authors and equally represent their contributions to history? Are women invited equally as guest speakers and visiting scholars to the school?
- Does her school value and support girls’ athletic teams as much as the boys’ teams? Are budgets, resources, and facilities equal?
- Do girls take, engage fully with, and excel in higher-level math, science, coding, engineering, and technology classes? Are there peer role models to help girls to “see it to be it” and envision themselves as makers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and engineers?
- Does her school have an atmosphere that fosters the confidence necessary for girls to pursue broader interests and take risks both inside and outside of the classroom? Do gender biases and assumptions impact course and extra-curricular selection and participation?
These are just a few sample questions that are good for parents to reflect on and think about as they are seeking the best school for their daughters.
Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools