By Head of School, Catherine McClain
I dare you to close your eyes and recall your middle school years. Yes, that wonderful and painfully awkward period between ages 11 to 14. If you have safely repressed that time, let me jog your memory: hideous outfits or hairstyles (hello asymmetrical wedge!) you wore to assert your independence from your parents and to ‘be your own person’ or the social suicide of acne, wearing the wrong thing, or less-than-cool friends; not raising your hand in class because you didn’t want to be branded as “that nerdy smart girl”; or that time you opted not to run for Class President (or anything for that matter) because the cute, popular boy or girl was sure to win anyway.
Ugh! No wonder so many adults cringe when thinking about their kids going to middle school! Yet, it is also a critical time, especially for girls. These are the years during which a young girl either develops a strong self-identity or begins to lose it. And her self-confidence (or lack of it) will define the choices she makes as a young woman and how she engages with the world around her.
Far from being a time we should wish away (or repress), middle school is an opportunity to ensure that girls grow into independent, capable teens who are comfortable with their bodies, unafraid to raise their hands and voice their opinions.
Howard Hanger, the father of two daughters, recognized this as “a precious window of time,” which is why, in 1999, he founded Hanger Hall as an alternative to the middle school options available to his girls – and why, 15 years later, parents in Asheville, NC have this choice for their daughters.
Hanger Hall, like its students, looks very different at fifteen. In its infancy, the school of three girls held classes in the basement of the original Hanger Hall residence, Howard’s home; its first steps were taken at the YWCA, where the school grew to 10 girls (and involved temporary space in which teachers had to pack up and take home their supplies every day). Its primary years have been spent in rented space at the beautiful Crest Mountain. Now, Hanger Hall serves 75 girls annually (25 per grade) and is about to make a bold next step in its maturation: securing a home for itself on W.T. Weaver Blvd, just across from UNCA in the property formerly owned by the Girl Scouts.
But, according to humanities teacher Jamie Hammond, who has taught at Hanger Hall for the last 13 years, one thing has not changed: “We meet girls where they are, socially and emotionally, and provide them with the space and tools to express themselves and to make a place for themselves in the world.” With that foundational commitment, Hanger Hall has established itself as the leader in single gender girls’ education in western North Carolina. In fact, according to the National Coalition of Girls Schools (NCGS), Hanger Hall is one of only a handful of schools in the country dedicated to educating middle school girls in a single gender environment.
There are schools in the western part of NC doing great work in teaching to the different learning styles of boys and girls and we are fortunate to have those options. We at Hanger Hall are grateful to be part of such a vibrant network and look forward to developing more partnerships to share with and learn from the diversity of educational experience in our area.
What we are most proud of is our unique culture. Often when I say that I lead an all-girls’ school with an all-female faculty I hear this: “I can’t imagine working with all women AND 75 girls!” The implication being, of course, that Hanger Hall as an environment must be wrought with emotion, pettiness, and drama. But the reality couldn’t be more different.
Hanger Hall’s culture empowers young girls to believe in themselves and their ideas; it is a safe space for girls to try out different personalities without ridicule or judgment and to discover who they are and how they want to be seen in this world. In small classes, led by female teachers, girls learn to build each other up rather than tear each other down.
Past Hanger Hall parent Anne Oxenreider says, “My daughter immediately noticed how nice an all-girl environment was for learning. She benefited from the social structure in place (full-school meetings, mentor relationships with a teacher, sister groups, and access to the Head of School when needed). She took risks and blossomed.” In a world where it is still the norm for women to be the harshest critics of each other, this single gender school culture encourages girls to support and celebrate each other.
Culture also involves traditions and rites-of-passage – and Hanger Hall has developed many in its 15 years. For example, eighth grade girls are responsible for leading the initiation of new students (and teachers) as part of our all-school camping trip each summer. This initiation marks the transition from elementary to middle school, welcomes each new girl into the school, and sets the tone for the entire school year. Eighth graders take this responsibility quite seriously and understand how their example will play a powerful part in the experience of their younger peers. It is always gratifying and humbling to see the care with which the eighth graders plan and perform their ceremony – and to witness the relief and excitement of sixth graders who realize that before the academic year even begins they have a sisterhood in which they fit and an opportunity to shed whatever baggage they may have gathered in elementary school.
The results of a UCLA study found, “When you combine strong female mentors and positive role models, reduced sex stereotyping in curriculum and classroom, and abundant learning opportunities, the results are clear. In the 1990s, a national study of secondary schools and colleges, The Case for Single-Sex Schools, showed that single-sex schools for females provide greater opportunity for educational attainment as measured by standardized cognitive tests, curriculum and course placement, leadership behavior, number of years of formal education, and occupational achievement.”
At Hanger Hall, girls see women occupying each and every role, while girls are expected to participate in every aspect of the school. In a classroom of just a dozen other students, girls can’t hide. Eva Louise Humphrey, who started at Hanger Hall during its time at the YWCA, says, “It didn’t take very long to cure me of my longtime habit of reading outside books during class.” In such a small environment, girls not only become comfortable with participating in, and leading, class discussions but also, as Eva remembers, taking responsibility for their education. She says that one of the most important things she learned at Hanger Hall was, “class could be easy or challenging, boring or interesting, depending on what YOU chose to make of it, and that you can get out of any class as much as you put in.” Eva graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2009.
To answer another question I am often asked: our girls don’t have a problem making the transition from a small all-girls’ environment to large co-ed public schools. In fact, they arrive ready academically (the vast majority go on to take AP and Honors classes), and already accustomed to raising their hands in math and science. They also approach high school with confidence in public speaking and a work ethic rooted in the knowledge that it’s not about how smart you are, but about how hard you are willing to work.
Hanger Hall is now undergoing its own rite-of-passage with the purchase of the Girl Scout property.
When Hanger Hall began, it took a leap of faith on the part of the founding families to believe in the mission and vision of Howard Hanger. Alumna parent Ilene Procida says, “We enrolled our oldest daughter in the school when it was a very small, new, growing institution, still finding its stride.”
Fifteen years later, those first students are now in their mid-to-late-20s (200 alumna so far). Their families still see those three years at Hanger Hall as pivotal to the successful women their daughters have become. Ilene now says, “I will always be grateful to Hanger Hall for making the middle school years less of a drama, more of an educational adventure, one filled with support from other girls and talented women role models. This is what middle school should be!” Many of the founding families made significant and critical gifts toward the purchase of the Girl Scout property to ensure that other girls would have the benefit of a Hanger Hall education. 141 parents, alumnae, grandparents, and community members made the dream a reality – raising $300,000 in just 60 days.
It goes without saying that having a permanent home is important because it helps the school build equity to continue with a sustainable financial model. But we also believe in the idea that ‘girls cannot be what they cannot see,’ so we wanted to make sure that everything about this purchase (including the renovation and move) opened our students’ eyes to what is possible. It is not an accident that our architect is a woman who runs her own business (Jane Matthews), that our closing attorney (Annika Brock) and Facilities Chair (Danette Lowery) are also female (and, though an accident of chance, how perfect is it that Hanger Hall is buying from the Girl Scouts, an organization with a parallel mission? Girls to Girls!). We also sought input from the girls on what their perfect school would look like and have managed to incorporate many of their suggestions into our master plan.
When we are finally ready to move in sometime in the second semester of the 2014-15 school year, our new campus will be as unique as Hanger Hall – and ready to help us embark on a new era in the school’s history.