A Progressive Tradition

By Alexa Nash

Original article here.

St. Catherine’s School had its start in 1890 in a small boarding-house dining room in Richmond, with a vision to offer innovative education for the modern woman. That tradition continues 125 years later at the school’s Grove Avenue campus, where students learn about complex subjects from computer coding to robotics.

The school launched its anniversary celebration during a lively Reunion Weekend this past spring. In an effort to increase community and alumni participation in the school’s legacy and shine a spotlight on progress over the decades, Head of School Terrie Scheckelhoff created a strategic plan with four driving concepts: girl-centered, remarkable intellect, life of meaning and tradition of strength.

“Our 125th anniversary gives us the opportunity to reflect on our heritage and to examine the hallmarks of our excellence and to create a vision that prepares our girls for their futures,” Scheckelhoff says.

She talks about Virginia Randolph Ellett, the founder of the progressive, Montessori-based school, who wanted to give women more academic opportunities. Ellett, fondly known as “Miss Jennie,” called it the Virginia Randolph Ellett School. Students learned English literature and foreign languages, which was unusual for the time. They took part in physical education, Socratic debates, history plays and field trips. In 1904, the private school administered the Bryn Mawr College Entrance Exam, making Richmond one of eight cities in the country to fully prepare women for higher education.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, the school has 965 girls enrolled, the largest student body in the school’s history.

The students are from 52 ZIP codes, creating a diverse population with a variety of religious and financial backgrounds. Scheckelhoff notes that St. Catherine’s School is the third largest member of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS), while continuing its focus on sisterhood and community service.

As a continuation of the anniversary festivities, St. Catherine’s held an event by NCGS, From STEM to STEAM: Girls’ Schools Leading the Way, in June. It was an opportunity for 550 international educators to share their experiences in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, and to help foster ideas for future endeavors at St. Catherine’s. Considering that the school utilizes 3-D printers and features a science building with an independent-study classroom laid out graduate school-style, the conference was right at home.

From the beginning of her tenure in 2012, Scheckelhoff recognized the importance of innovation, and she underlines the fact that computer coding is a skill that needs to be integrated into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum.

“We know that every girl has to have coding in her life,” she says, pointing out that every object in her office, unless handcrafted by an artisan, was produced from a digital code. “Everything is design-made, everything had a computer chip with a code for it. We have to make sure that girls have those tools, because it is so prevalent.”

The 125th-year commemorations will include an Oct. 9 event called Girls Innovate, a day that inspires students to explore STEM careers. St. Catherine’s students will partner with girls from economically challenged schools to observe new technology and listen to speakers from across the country. Scheckelhoff explains that research shows students in an all-girls school are six times more likely to consider STEM careers than those in a co-ed environment.

“If we don’t have women’s voices around the decision-making and problem-solving tables, we don’t have a complete world,” she says. “We’re missing diverse perspectives, we’re missing the opportunity for more innovation that would come from women, and we’re missing their brain power.”

Along with other scheduled events, the school created a 125th-anniversary website, stc125.org, as a venue for the members of the St. Catherine’s community to share their memories through photos, videos and written stories. In one posting, a 1936 graduate recalls meeting “a very important former student of Miss Jennie’s. Her name was Lady Astor, and she lived in England.” In another, an alumna from the class of 1955 recalls, “In my junior and senior year, I was allowed to take the bus and go downtown, where for $2.50 I could have lunch and see a movie and still have money left over! We had to wear hats and gloves as befitting St. Catherine girls.”

The page also features an interactive historical timeline and calendar of events related to the anniversary.

Scheckelhoff emphasizes the importance of reflecting on the past and learning from it to build a vision for the future. “We’re just one part of a bigger world. We’re on a global platform that we have a responsibility to ourselves, but also to others around us, and so we’re always moving forward.”

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