PORTLAND — It’s been six months since The Maine Girls’ Academy officially changed its name and dropped all affiliation with the Sisters of Mercy, who founded the school in 1969.
In some ways nothing has changed; in other ways everything has changed.
With the new name have come several significant gifts that will help the school as it keeps moving forward. This week it announced its largest gift to date, a $600,000 donation from the estate of J. Eileen Conroy, which provides a significant new endowment for the only all-girl high school in Maine.
In addition, the newly independent private school, formerly Catherine McAuley High School, also received several other significant donations, including a $15,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation and a first-time gift of $50,000, which will support tuition assistance.
The school is still a place where students benefit from small class sizes, academic rigor and a mission-based education focused on social justice, but it’s also now more directly focused on providing cutting-edge, 21st century education that gives students “the kinds of skills needed now,” according to Head of School Kathryn Woodson Barr.
It was more than a year ago, after a lot of discussion, that school leaders decided to drop their affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church in order to ensure continued local control and to make it easier to launch a series of new initiatives.
Those initiatives include the new Mercy Matters program, which integrates leadership, global citizenship and ethics into every course taught at the academy, from the arts to the sciences.
“It’s really our own invention,” Woodson Barr said.
Part of becoming an independent school also meant a name change, and Woodson Barr said, “I absolutely love” the name of The Maine Girls’ Academy because “it puts a stake in the ground and describes exactly what we do.”
And, Heidi Osborn, chairwoman of the board of trustees, said, “We’re really past the transition. We’re now in a whole new world that’s different and exciting.”
Portland students Megan Paige, a senior, and Chloe Cott, a junior, said so far they haven’t noticed much of a difference in the overall school environment, although there’s a new block schedule, and students seem to feel more free about asserting their opinions.
“Conversation is more open than before,” Paige said.
She is the third generation from her family to attend the school. She also attended St. Brigid, a private Catholic school, from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Paige is captain of the basketball team, president of the social media club and senior editor of the yearbook. She is also president of the Maine Medical Center Explorers Club.
She said she never questioned whether she would attend what’s now The Maine Girls’ Academy. “My heart has always been here,” Paige said. “When I first walked on campus there was just something really special.”
What both Paige and Cott said they like about the school is that there is “no drama,” no pressure to be in a relationship with a boy, and the focus is on academics.
Cott came to the school from Lincoln Middle School, and said what she most appreciates about The Maine Girls’ Academy is the maturity and focus of her classmates.
“I want to go places and do specific things and I knew this school would give me the boost I needed,” she said. “Boys our age are so immature. Going here allows me to focus on myself and my schoolwork and to talk in class with no fear of judgment.”
Her family is not religious, but Cott said from the time she was in third grade it was her wish and goal to enroll at the academy. She’s captain of the cross-country team, a member of the Ambassadors Club, and a Girl Scout.
Both girls are planning on majoring in science at college; it was the science curriculum at the school that first sparked their interest in having a career in that field.
“The opportunities and experiences you have here you’ll never get anywhere else,” Paige said.
“If you want to succeed and go places, this school is a great stepping stone,” Cott added. “The experiences, the friendships, the intimacy; I wouldn’t change anything.”
Osborn said going independent and changing the name was a lot of work, but the focus was always “on how to capitalize on this amazing, special, unique and irreplaceable institution.”
Woodson Barr agreed, saying, “As the only all-girls high school in the state we have an obligation to continue graduating strong women. The school still has the same values as before to teach our girls to lead, to think and to change the world.”
With a current enrollment of about 100 students, Woodson Barr said The Maine Girls’ Academy definitely has room to grow, and a winter open house planned for 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12, will be a great time for area girls and their families to learn what the school is about.
In a Jan. 9 press release about the recent donations, the school said future students will benefit from the “three extraordinary gifts (that) will help fuel an already exciting new start for (the) school. These special gifts represent a spectrum of giving … with one common thread: supporting the education and empowerment of the next generation of strong women in Maine.”
Laura Genese, the school’s new director of marketing and special projects, said Conroy was an alumna who graduated in 1950, and a long-time supporter of the school.
“Ms. Conroy was committed to making (a) difference, and she recognized that through her bequest she could make a difference that would last beyond her lifetime – to leave a transformational legacy to support girls’ education,” said Ginger Jones, director of advancement at the academy.
During the Jan. 12 open house the academy will offer assistance in applying for admission, including a workshop on essay writing, on-the-spot interviews and help in applying for tuition assistance.
“What I love about the open houses is that once you’ve experienced what it’s like here, it completely changes your view. Here it’s fun, exciting and joyful to be in high school,” Osborn said. “The school spirit here is so amazing.”
And while The Maine Girls’ Academy is now an independent school, it kept the school colors, the mascot and the uniform, as well as a few religious classes, which are now focused on more than one religion, according to Woodson Barr.
“Students and parents are always our best advocates,” Osborn said. “They all say we’re Maine’s best kept secret, but we don’t want to be a secret, we want to be well known for what we provide our girls.”
Chloe Cott, left, and Megan Paige, who are both from Portland, said they have never regretted choosing the all-girl educational environment at what is now The Maine Girls’ Academy.
School officials say The Maine Girls’ Academy has successfully become an independent private school in Portland after dropping its affiliation with the Sisters of Mercy and its former name of Catherine McAuley High School.