Supporters still hope to save Portland all-girls school

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PORTLAND — While the announcement that it would close later this month seemed sudden, officials at Maine Girls’ Academy this week said they’ve exhausted virtually all their options to keep the school open.

“This board is smart, well-connected and hardworking and there was a concerted, consistent, all-out, multi-year effort” to keep the only all-girls school in Maine operating, Heidi Osborn, head of the academy board, said Tuesday.

But although Osborn called closing the school the only responsible step the board could take, the board after a packed meeting Monday night agreed to give a group of supporters a chance to see if they can create a plan to save the school.

Osborn and Head of School Amy Jolly said they would also provide the group with an opportunity to “get familiar with our finances and the basis for the board’s decision” at another meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Cara Biddings, who graduated from the school in 1996, when it was known as Catherine McAuley High School, is one of those leading the effort to save the Maine Girls’ Academy.

Her daughter, who would be a junior, is the third generation of the family to attend the school and Biddings on Tuesday said the board may feel it’s done everything possible, “but they never came to us.”

She admitted “there’s a short window to figure out what we can do to open the doors in the fall,” but added a core group is now committed to “seeing what we can do with all the available resources.”

Biddings said MGA has been “over dependent” on tuition to keep operating, and although she doesn’t expect to raise the funds needed through a GoFundMe effort, she still believes it’s possible to raise enough money from the wider community to preserve the school.

Since being launched last week, the online fundraising page created by Biddings has raised more than $10,000 of a $1 million goal.

“A lot of people are looking to step up and help,” Biddings said Tuesday. “There was a lot of passion and a lot of fight in the room last night. We just want to see if there’s a path forward and we want to learn exactly what would be needed.”

“The resounding theme,” Biddings said of Monday’s meeting, which was closed to the press, “was that we have to save this school. An all-girls education is not antiquated. It’s so powerful for girls that we just hope it remains an option for Maine.”

“It’s a truly amazing place,” she said of The Maine Girls’ Academy. “It’s a place where girls get to just be girls and where they learn so much about themselves and each other. It’s such a treasure and it would be a tremendous loss if it were to fade away.”

McAuley transitioned into Maine Girls’ Academy only two years ago, but it carried on a tradition of offering an all-girls education that’s been part of the Portland community since 1877.

The school announced in a July 5 press release that its board “has voted to cease operations and close the school as of July 15. This difficult and sad decision was made necessary by lower enrollment and revenue than would be needed to operate the school throughout the upcoming school year.”

This week Jolly said MGA would likely have until the end of the month to fully vacate its building at the corner of Stevens Avenue and Walton Street.

Osborn said the board is “heartbroken” over the decision to close, but said it had been working hard at raising money, to no avail.

Jolly said 80 percent of the 96 students enrolled in the school receive financial aid.

“Many people assume that because MGA was a private school that it served an elite population, when actually the opposite is true,” she said. “We have been proud to … welcome girls from all socioeconomic backgrounds.”

In order to keep the school going, Jolly said MGA would have needed a minimum enrollment of 102 students. But for the upcoming academic year only 76 were committed to the high school program.

That meant, she said, “it was logistically challenging, if not impossible, to deliver the classes and coursework that our students want and need.”

Osborn said faculty at the school will receive their full salaries through the summer. The ultimate fate of the school building, which MGA leases, is unclear.

“The building is in need of extensive renovation,” Jolly said, “as little was done to maintain or improve it over the last 50 years.”

NYA a possibility

Meanwhile, North Yarmouth Academy has agreed to accept current students from MGA, and to honor its enrollment agreements.

Tuition at MGA is $19,850; at North Yarmouth Academy it’s $29,100 for the high school program.

Both Ben Jackson, head of school at NYA, and Jolly said this week that while NYA offers a co-ed experience, the two schools are a close match in terms of curriculum and values.

“North Yarmouth Academy has agreed to help preserve many of the most important elements of an all-girls education,” Jolly said this week, including leadership development and single-sex classes. “I’m really impressed with how they support young women.”

For his part, Jackson said that the mission of MGA to empower “young women to be confident thinkers and compassionate leaders has never been more relevant nor more important than it is today.”

And, he said, “Both schools are committed to providing challenging academic programs in a safe and supportive environment that includes developing critical thinkers and sophisticated writers, with an additional focus on maths and sciences.”

In the first few days following the announcement that MGA was closing, Jackson said the Yarmouth school heard from between 30 and 40 families. In addition, he said, “we are hosting an (informational) event on Tuesday evening and continue to receive RSVPs.”

In all, Jackson said, NYA has an enrollment of 300 students, and under its strategic plan the school hopes to enroll another 40 to 60 over the next five years.

Other schools interested

North Yarmouth Academy isn’t the only local private school interested in attracting displaced MGA students.

Officials at Waynflete and Cheverus in Portland and the Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport all said this week they’re happy to offer alternatives to MGA families looking for new private school placements.

Representatives from all three schools said they want to be sensitive and compassionate regarding the loss of MGA, but each also said they could provide a good fit going forward.

At Waynflete, the upper school tuition for the upcoming year is $31,615 for grades 9-11 and $31,715 for grade 12.

Rand Ardell, the director of marketing and communications at Waynflete, called MGA “an essential part of greater Portland’s independent school community” and said its closure “leaves many families at a crossroads.”

He said Waynflete is still accepting applications for its middle and upper schools for the 2018-2019 academic year and a coffee hour with the head of school would be held at 9 a.m. Thursday, July 19.

Overall, he said, “Waynflete is expediting the application process for MGA families to allow parents as much time as they need to make the best educational decision for their children.”

At Cheverus, the tuition for the upcoming academic year is $18,990 and Bethany Hanley, the admissions director, said the school wants “to be a source of support and … practical options for families.”

“In talking with (them) … families are seeking a learning environment in which they feel invested in a warm and supportive community that challenges them to take risks, develop deep loving relationships, and to cultivate the best versions of themselves. This (all) resonates with the Cheverus experience,” Hanley said.

Maine Coast Waldorf School charges a tuition of $20,950 for grades 9-12 and this past fall opened a new high school on its 80-acre campus.

David Eichler, the pedagogical director, said, “(we) offer robust academic programming, as well as … an open and welcoming environment, with personal support and attention, and a broad range of activities to meet diverse interests.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Maine Girls’ Academy on Stevens Avenue in Portland is set to close later this month.

Supporters of Maine Girls’ Academy turned out for a meeting at the school Monday to see if anything could be done to save the school.

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