The Benefit of an All-Girls Education

Steve Bergen, Mayfield Senior School, Pasadena, CaCathleen Rauterkus
Assistant Head of School
Cornelia Connelly School
of the Holy Child

Anaheim, CA

I am a proud graduate of Cornelia Connelly School of the Holy Child in Anaheim, CA. I graduated in 1995 and I have been back at this school serving in the capacity of teacher for 8 years and as Assistant Head of School for the last year. It is not surprising that I found myself at Connelly those many years ago as I come from a line of strong women. My grandmother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, was determined to save money for her daughters to attend college, in addition to her son. My mother earned a degree in math in a day when many math jobs were only open to men. I conquered many a graduate class filled with men where professors openly doubted that I could hold my own in a group of men. It also makes sense, then, that I find myself back at an all-girls school determined to make a difference for today’s young women. The need for all-girls education is just as great today as it was in the 1960’s when my mom was the first of her family to attend college. In fact there may be more of a need today. I have heard male administrators say things like “everyone knows boys are better than girls in math”. This shocking way of thinking that gender determines ability in a specific subject is still prevalent today and OUR girls need to be taught otherwise.

Our co-educational institutions are flawed in that disparity with academics is identified as an inherent weakness in one gender. Single-sex schools identify instead that girls and boys learn differently and have different academic needs, but both are quite capable of learning. In this way, we are trying to develop a growth mindset in our young people, rather than a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset tells us we are only as good as our inherent talent and no more. A growth mindset tells us potential is within us and practice and interest can make the difference in learning.

Our girls did an activity recently called a failure resume. It is not an easy thing to do. They were asked to write down 1-3 mistakes they made recently and then 1-3 lessons learned from those mistakes. The point of the activity is to view mistakes as part of the process of learning rather than the result of learning, like grades. Girls need this in their learning desperately. When girls, learn, they tend to be more cautious. That is when asked a question in class, girls will often pause, contemplate, and then answer. Boys, with a more competitive spirit, want to be the first to get their hand in the air. Many teachers, uncomfortable with awkward pauses as most of us are, will look for that early hand raised and therefore many girls do not get the opportunity to contribute.

A study explained in our summer professional development reading, Enough As She Is by Rachel Simmons, stated that 5 year old girls who were asked if they wanted to play a game that was for smart kids quickly and happily volunteered. However, 6 years old girls said they were not smart enough for a game that required intelligence. How sad that our world is telling girls that intelligence is a male trait and they are eliminating themselves from that by the age of 6! Simmons also stated that in 2014 parents googled the question “is my son a genius?” more than twice the time that the same question was googled about a daughter. Keep in mind that this is not a ratio issue, as females still outnumber males in America.

This continues to tell me that a specific education dedicated to girls is still needed. Also, we must develop a growth mindset for our daughters. Set the example by admitting to your own mistakes and discussing the lesson in the mistakes (this won’t be easy, but is worth the reward). Do not ignore interest. Passion for learning will be a better indicator of success than grades, in many cases. If your daughter doesn’t like science, then she may not want to make a career of it. However, I have known many successful people who were determined to conquer a field despite early mediocre grades, all because they enjoyed it.

Next, focus on what they have learned and not where they are going to college. Also not easy with today’s pressures, but so important. When girls talk to me about their biggest worries and fears, most have to do with college and whether or not they will even get in. We should reinforce these ideas – you will get into college and you will attend the right college – for you! Trust that God will put you exactly where you belong and the difference between one school and another in regards to getting and (more importantly) securing a job is miniscule. That will instead depend on those other attributes that we sometimes forget to foster: personality, demeanor, resiliency, and good, old-fashioned, hard work!

Praise the process more than the grades. Talk with them about what they learned, not what their grades are. Ask them about that religion project or the English paper and what they gleaned from it. Discuss politics and current events and help their minds develop around complicated, critical thinking. You will be surprised by how much they know and how much learning is happening! Grades are an indicator of success, but they are not the sole determination of success. Learning is a process and the process must be checked in on from time to time. If grades are the primary focus, then the light formed by a love of learning will soon be diminished.

Lastly, manage stress, but do not eliminate stress. Stress is a lot like carbohydrates. We must keep it in check, but a complete abolishment will lead to other problems. Positive stress motivates us to get up in the morning, study for the test, take risks, and face challenges. When we allow stress to overwhelm us or we lose our ability to cope with the stress, then it consumes us. Managing stress is a sign of our coping skills and our resiliency. Facing problems straight on, rather than hiding from our troubles is what hones the skill of resiliency. Teach them that the stress of today does not define the joys of tomorrow. Resiliency can teach us to keep moving forward against difficult odds. It may be a little cliché, but we do need to find the silver lining. If we focus on the process, praise the lesson even in mistakes, and focus on the need for our girls to learn in a style comfortable and secure for them, we will see their success in their jobs, relationships, motherhood, or whatever may come their way.