By MOLLY MULSHINE
Two Rumson women on a quest to develop an all-girls Catholic high school were heartened recently to find that thousands of area parents are just as interested in the idea as they are.
Victoria Gmelich and Mairead (pronounced ‘mah-RAID’) Clifford conducted an online survey last month to gauge interest in bringing such an institution to Monmouth County. They anticipated about 800 families would participate, but ended up with 2,000 responses.
Now, it’s time to “analyze the data and actually prove to ourselves what we think we already know that there is a big need in this area for an all-girls school,” Gmelich tells redbankgreen.
Gmelich is mom to four daughters ranging in age from 12 to 5 years old, as well as a three-year-old son. Clifford has three daughters, aged 11, 9 and 7. The pair hope to have the Monmouth Girls Academy up running by the time the eldest of them enters high school, in fall 2013.
“That would be if every single thing was on track and we got our funding right away,” Gmelich said. “I think that’s aggressive, but definitely doable.”
So far, Gmelich and Clifford say they have not hit any significant speed bumps in the planning process. They are currently awaiting analysis of their survey’s results from a consulting firm, as well as investigating potential sources of funding for the school.
The women say they would start the school at a temporary location with a freshman class only, with about 100 girls. They anticipate the school’s permanent location would be in Lincroft, Colts Neck or somewhere else with easy Garden State Parkway access.
The feedback from parents thus far has been mostly positive, with many asking how they can help speed the process.
“There’s been so much enthusiasm and so many people have contacted us,” including not only parents but also potential principals, teachers and school nurses, Gmelich said. “People are definitely taking us seriously.”
Currently, girls like Gmelich’s and Clifford’s can attend Rumson-Fair Haven public high school, Red Bank Catholic High School or boarding schools located farther away, while their male counterparts have all of these options in addition to the all-boys Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft.
“These boys are getting the opportunity that the girls deserve,” Gmelich said. “I think people are really excited to think the girls are finally going to have something [similar].”
Research has shown that boys and girls learn differently, Gmelich said, and there is also a social benefit to keeping them separated when it comes to education, as it removes concerns over “hairdo or makeup or what the boys are perceiving [female students] to be.”
“If you eliminate that from the equation, you just have a lot more time and energy and enthusiasm for academics, which is really why you’re in high school,” Gmelich said.
The women also cite research indicating that students in all-girls schools score higher on the SATs, spend more time studying and are more likely to excel in engineering and math classes. Gmelich attributed this to the fact that teachers perhaps subconsciously sometimes push boys harder in science and math classes.
“That tends not to happen in an all-girls school,” she said. “You tend to teach to the entire student, the entire girl. Things aren’t falling through the cracks.”
Gmelich remembers her days at an all-girls Catholic high school on her native Long Island fondly.
“It brings you to such a different level as a woman with confidence, independence and self-awareness, as opposed to self-consciousness,” she said. “Those are the things I learned at an all-girls school, and I loved the camaraderie, the flourishing friendships and the simplicity of just focusing on school. It was cool to be smart, and you were well-received if you came to school well-prepared.”
While parents’ responses to the plan have been mostly supportive, some are “worried that the sports programs won’t be competitive,” Gmelich said, but she intends to seek advice from other people who have started grassroots high schools in order to keep sports programs up to snuff.
Also, some parents may be hesitant to support the idea because a similar effort was put forth in the area in the 1980s but fell through when the Diocese of Trenton withheld its blessing.
Gmelich and Clifford who is also a product of a girls-only Catholic school hope to win approval from the diocesan leader, Bishop David O’Connell, in order to make religious instruction part of the curriculum. Gmelich and Clifford intend to meet with O’Connell to share the results of the survey with him, as well as to ensure him, as they believe, that the school would not undermine the enrollment efforts of RBC and other Catholic high schools.
Gmelich said her own daughters “see all the work we’re putting into it and they say, ‘Why do you want to this?'” she said. “We say it’s because it’s a really special opportunity if you’re a girl to be able to go to an all-girls school. There’s really something that you can’t replicate anywhere else.”