Hawthorn Leadership School: Where Every Girl Matters
“There’s nothing like being part of a sisterhood,” says Mary Danforth Stillman. “You have a deep interdependence that forms and a constant reinforcement that each girl is valued because every role in the group is filled by a girl.” It’s one of several benefits of an all-girls education that Stillman realized as a student at a girls school in Washington, DC, and sought to bring to others when launching the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls in 2015, the first all-girls charter school in the St. Louis region and the state. The school has been selected as a YouthBridge Heritage Grant recipient for 2020.
“The education I received in my adolescent years made me who I am today, giving me a sense of self I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else,” says Stillman. “The reality, however, is that few have the privilege or opportunity to experience the unique environment of a single-sex school.”
Growing up in a family with a long legacy of public service to Missouri and the St. Louis area, Stillman was well aware of the disparities within the region, but became personally committed to creating more educational options for high-needs families in St. Louis after spending nearly 10 years teaching at Washington University and working for a time with College Bound.
Stillman’s lightbulb moment came in 2012 while listening to the founder of the Young Women’s Leadership Network – which has been renamed the Student Leadership Network – an affiliation of tuition-free, all-girls public schools across the country. Based on a model of rigorous college preparatory curricula with an emphasis on STEM, the Network’s flagship school opened in East Harlem, NY, in 1996.
“STEM is a pillar of these schools because nearly everything in our 21st century world interfaces with technology, and yet, girls still can tend to feel less confident in this area than boys,” says Stillman. “Also, STEM careers are highly lucrative and in demand, but the odds are stacked against women, even more so for women of color. In an all-girls environment, the students feel free to explore these fields with more confidence.”
After taking steps to begin an affiliation with the Network, Stillman approached Washington University about serving as the charter school’s institutional sponsor, which is required by Missouri law. In addition to holding the school accountable for meeting performance goals, standards and legal compliance, Stillman says the university plays an integral role in STEM curriculum design, professional development and student academic support, including tutoring and mentoring.
The Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls opened its doors at the historic site of the former McBride High School for Boys on North Kingshighway in August 2015. Initially serving 6th and 7th grades, the school expanded through 12th grade in 2020, with a current enrollment of about 115.
“There is certainly room for growth, and that’s where the YouthBridge Heritage Grant will be so valuable…in helping us scale up,” says Stillman, who now serves as Executive Director of the Hawthorn Leadership School Foundation. Part of that includes hiring a dedicated recruitment specialist. While working to attract more students, Stillman says the school is committed to creating the best possible learning environment for students and families “that have taken a leap of faith with a one-of-a-kind model.”
In some cases, she says, that means “doubling down” on the basics in order to firm up the academic foundation before adding more advanced concepts. “With small class sizes, we can give our students that personalized attention and encouragement to develop their individualized skills,” says Stillman. “We are preparing young women to become future professionals and leaders and to be agents of change in their communities; we have to do right by each of them, every day.”
If you would like to donate or have any questions about this organization, please contact Allison McDonald.