Women are underrepresented in the important fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — minority women even more so. To help close the gender gap and to prepare more students for higher education, Washington University in St. Louis will sponsor an innovative new charter school: Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, the first single-sex STEM charter school in St. Louis.
University leaders believe the partnership will build on past successes at KIPP Inspire Academy and in the Hazelwood School District, where hands-on help from WUSTL educators and students has led to dramatically improved test scores.
Pending approval of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Hawthorn will open in August 2015 with sixth- and seventh-grade classes and will add a class each year. Ultimately, the school will serve 500 girls in grades six through 12 by 2020. Enrollment will be open and tuition will be free. The school has yet to identify a location.
Mary Danforth Stillman, daughter of Sen. John Danforth and niece of former WUSTL Chancellor William H. Danforth, is the school’s founder and is leading efforts to open the school. Hawthorn is affiliated with the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN), which supports five high-performing all-girls public schools in New York City and nine affiliate schools in Illinois, Maryland, New York and Texas.
Founded by WUSTL graduate and Board of Trustees member Ann Rubenstein Tisch, the Young Women’s Leadership Network has a track record of success. The flagship YWLN school in East Harlem boasts a graduation rate higher than 96 percent for the past 13 years. Every graduating senior has been accepted to college with significant financial aid.
Hawthorn will offer a hands-on, college-preparatory curriculum that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. Lessons will be reinforced through after-school and summer programming. Girls will wear uniforms and meet daily with a faculty adviser. A full-time social worker will be on staff, and a trained college counselor will work with the girls beginning in 10th grade.
Stillman, who graduated from Holton-Arms, an all-girls school in Bethesda, Md., said single-sex education provides girls with unique educational and leadership opportunities. Educated as an attorney, Stillman served as an assistant dean at WUSTL and taught a freshman seminar on the Bill of Rights for nine years.
“The single-sex option is out there for people who can pay, and now we are saying, ‘Let’s provide that option to students with limited financial resources,’” Stillman said. “At Hawthorn, every leadership role will be filled by a girl. Every classroom discussion will be led by a girl. Hawthorn girls will be encouraged to reach their highest potential in and out of the classroom, and our faculty and staff will provide the support and encouragement they need to realize that potential.”
She adds the school’s “girl power attitude” will celebrate each student’s attributes, helping girls maintain a strong sense of self-respect, personal worth and inner strength.
“An all-girls school beginning at the sixth grade captures girls as they head into the tumultuous adolescent years,” Stillman said. “It is at this age that girls often begin to lose some of their earlier confidence, and their self-esteem can begin to waver. Middle-school girls who once saw themselves as curious and capable students, particularly in math and science, often begin deferring to boys.”
Washington University will help train teachers, develop curriculum and provide student tutors and mentors. WUSTL also sponsors KIPP Inspire Academy, a high-performing middle school in the Fox Park neighborhood. The university’s charter school sponsorships are part of its broad, ongoing effort to make higher education accessible to all students regardless of their background or finances.
“I have no doubt that the Hawthorn School will strengthen opportunities to educate the next generation of women from the City of St. Louis,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “The intense preparation young women will receive at Hawthorn will empower and inspire them to pursue higher education and, possibly, even careers in science, technology and engineering. Through efforts like this, we can make a real difference in our own community.”
Barbara A. Schaal, PhD, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor and an accomplished biologist, said she is excited to serve as a role model to this next generation of scientists and engineers.
“When I heard about this, I thought, ‘Wow. I want to participate. I want to go to that school,’” Schaal said. “I’d love to see our women faculty members going to the school and taking those students under our wing and nurturing them.”
She hopes Hawthorn helps to change the misconceptions that drive some women away from STEM careers.
“There is this feeling that you can’t be a successful woman in a STEM field and also have a warm and rich personal life,” Schaal said. “We know that’s just not true. Just look at the Biology Department at Washington University. Many of the women here have families and children and rich lives. I look forward to sharing that message.”
Ralph S. Quatrano, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science and a vocal advocate for women in engineering, said our planet needs everyone — men and women — to solve the problems facing our planet.
“Women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are critical to this endeavor,” Quatrano said. “By educating and empowering young women in our region, the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls will help build a strong STEM pipeline.”
Hawthorn is a member of the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association which provides ongoing strategic and technical support to the school. Hawthorn is receiving additional support from the Office of St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay and the school is awaiting feedback in late January from the Mayor’s charter application review process. In addition, the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation is serving as the school’s fiscal sponsor during the planning and development phase.
The university’s sponsorship efforts will be led by its Institute for School Partnership (ISP), which provides training and resources to elementary and secondary schools throughout the region.
“WUSTL’s approach to sponsorship is to also be very actively involved as a partner,” said Vicki May, ISP director. “We are very interested in supporting public schooling throughout the metropolitan region and see this unique opportunity as one that will serve as a laboratory of innovation to benefit public education.”
In addition to its work in the Hazelwood School District and KIPP, Washington University has supported other educational endeavors in St. Louis, including:
K-12 Connections, which brings WUSTL faculty, students and staff concerned about urban education together with St. Louis schools, coordinating contributions of time and expertise with stated school needs.
MySci, which equips elementary school teachers with instructional materials and professional development opportunities in STEM to help instill a love of science in students.
Each One Teach One, which dispatches some 250 undergraduates to local schools for one-on-one weekly tutoring.