Town Talk Features

Girl Power: Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls

Imagine a hallway filled with girls chatting excitedly as they prepare for class, all dressed in matching uniforms, their hair thrown into ponytails without much thought. There are no boys to impress or distract; the focus is on the day’s science and engineering classes, or after-school robotics club.

This is the environment planned for Hawthorn Leadership School For Girls, a public charter school for grades six through 12 opening this fall on Kingshighway Boulevard. It’s the vision of founder and executive director Mary Stillman, daughter of former Sen. John Danforth. “When my family lived in Washington, D.C., I attended high school at Holton-Arms, an all-girls independent school. Focusing on rigorous academic challenges in that setting was such an empowering experience.”

It was one that stayed with Stillman as she attended college and law school, eventually working as a lawyer and a professor at Washington University. When she heard about a group of all-girls public schools in New York supported by the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN), she was intrigued and started pursuing it, Stillman says. After much hard work, Hawthorn became a reality and is now also an affiliate of YWLN. Only since 2013 has Missouri allowed single-sex public schools, making Hawthorn the first of its kind in the state. “Our mission is to provide a school that is nurturing, safe and supportive for young women who primarily live in the city of St. Louis,” Stillman explains. “We want these girls to maintain their self-esteem in these volatile years and to empower them to be leaders here and onward in college and their communities.”

Stillman believes an all-girls environment will allow for greater student success. “There can be a lot of distractions when boys are present at school,” she notes. It will follow a STE M-focused curriculum, supported by Hawthorn’s sponsor, Washington University. “State law dictates charter schools must have a higher-ed institution as a sponsor,” she says. “We are accountable to our sponsor, which in turn is accountable to the state. W.U. helped us develop our curriculum and instructional methods, particularly in the sciences and engineering courses.”

Stillman says the STE M fields are where the jobs are now, and there is a noticeable lack of women in these areas, especially minority women. “We’re trying to give these opportunities to city public school students who wouldn’t have them otherwise,” she says. “Even if the girls don’t end up working in these fields directly, they will have the exposure and be much more comfortable and competent in these fields.”

The curriculum relies on problem-based learning. “Teachers will present a central guiding question to a unit, and the girls will work together to solve it,” Stillman explains. Students will take two periods of math every day, along with a math lab, and everyone will take an intro to engineering class. “We’ll also have STE M-focused extracurriculars, like robotics and coding,” she says. Hawthorn’s principal, native St. Louisan Robyn Wiens, has been working since last August on building the curriculum and recruiting students and teachers. “Our teachers come from all different levels of experience and backgrounds: public, private, parochial and charter schools—just an amazing mix,” Stillman says.

The building at 1901 N. Kingshighway Blvd. has been under renovation since March. Formerly McBride High School and Imagine Academy of Careers, the space is ideal for the new school, Stillman says. “There was a great need in this part of the city, and a lot of girls in the area have enrolled,” she notes. It will open this fall with sixth- and seventh-grade classrooms and will add a new class every year at the sixth grade level until the first graduating class. “We hope to have 80 in each grade to start.”

Since startup costs, including initial hiring and building maintenance, are not covered by public funding, the school has relied on private donations. “We’ll get public funding, but there is a huge gap between what we get and what it costs to educate a Hawthorn student,” Stillman explains. “We’ve received a huge amount of local financial support, which is emotionally validating. Our mission has resonated with the people of St. Louis.”

Pictured: Two students entering Hawthorn in the fall, with principal Robyn Wiens
Photo Courtesy of Hawthorn

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