Their all-girls high school was going to close. So, they convinced famed all-boys school to open its doors

By Tom Bergeron
Newark/Elizabeth | May 15, 2020 at 2:10 pm
Editor’s Desk

On an early morning in March — a few days before the COVID-19 crisis took over the state — a group of girls from Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth traveled to Newark for a meeting at St. Benedict’s Prep.

They were looking for a new place to learn.

Benedictine Academy had announced earlier in the week that it was closing, just another school in a long list of religious-based institutions to call it quits.

The leadership team at all-girls Benedictine Academy wasn’t willing to accept their fate. So, they reached out to St. Benedict’s Prep and set up a meeting.

With the students.

Over the next two hours, a handful of girls from Benedictine Academy met with a handful of boys at St. Benedict’s Prep to discuss how they could combine to create a co-institutional institution.

Neither side wanted to give up its same-sex schooling. Both sides wanted to find a solution.

“We were just talking about logistics,” Karen Calles said. “We were talking about potential buildings we could use outside of the campus. We were talking about how we could fit together, but remain separate. Mainly, we were just seeing if they were willing to help us.

“And they were.”

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Father Edwin Leahy of St. Benedict’s Prep speaks as girls from Benedictine Academy embrace in the background.

What shouldn’t be lost in the news that St. Benedict’s Prep will have a girls’ division for the first time is this: The idea was conceived by students at one school and approved by students at the other.

It’s no surprise to Father Edwin Leahy, the longtime leader of St. Benedict’s — one of the most inspiring schools in the state. The school is based on the principles of character, integrity, respect and self-reliance.

School officials often quote the words of the late Father Mark Payne, who preached:

“Don’t do for kids what kids can do for themselves.”

Calles, 17, said the girls at Benedictine Academy knew this going in.

“We know that St. Benedict’s is student-run,” she said. “So, in order for us to get to Father Edwin, you have to get through the students first. Especially the leadership team.”

Calles is part of a group that includes Agnes Aghwana, Maryam Attalla, Sabrina Duarte, Lesley Mendez, Nina Mosley, Joanna Rajah, Sabrina Reves and Troi Slade.

The group, showing its leadership skills, came prepared.

The girls started writing a proposal on the day they learned their school would close. They needed a place to learn. And they needed to protect and maintain the most important aspect of their education: Being in an all-girls setting.

“We were coming from a school that’s already all-girls,” she said. “That’s what we want. And, especially in a world like this, it’s what we need. We need women supporting women, and also men supporting women.

“In order for us to grow, we need to be in an environment where we’re completely comfortable. And I think that that’s mainly achievable in an all-girls environment.”

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Getting support from the students at St. Benedict’s Prep was a big step — but only the first one.

Calles said convincing those students’ parents, the school’s board and the school’s alumni to go along was something else.

The girls hit up the boys for the information they knew they needed.

“We were trying to get people to ask more questions so that we could form our school based off of what everybody was concerned about,” she said. “We knew a lot of people are concerned about the finances and all that. We knew there were going to be questions from parents. We were just trying to find a way get support from the community, because that’s what St. Benedict’s is all about.”

The biggest obstacle proved to be something they didn’t plan for: COVID-19.

“As soon as the whole virus came along and we’re shut down, the whole issue was kind of dead for a couple of weeks,” Calles said.

The students refused to give up. They talked with school officials in Union County. It went nowhere.

“We were trying to discuss a way to get a new building, but they completely refused,” she said. “And they didn’t want to merge us with St. Benedict’s.”

They found a solution.

“We said, you know what, ‘We’ll just become the St. Benedict’s Prep all-girls division,” she said.

They had a virtual townhall meeting with some St. Benedict’s parents soon after — and successfully sold the idea.

The agreement was announced formally Thursday night during a townhall meeting on YouTube.

Calles and others spoke.

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How this will work, no one is sure. Starting with Father Edwin.

But, he was quick to point out universal truth: All school years are different.

“I think what people don’t understand about schools is that they have to be re-created every year,” he said. “Just because it worked last year, there’s no guarantee it will work this year. You always have a new set of leaders.”

This next school year — which starts in July at St. Benedict’s — already was promising to be unlike all others because of COVID-19.

Adding girls? That’s just another wrinkle. One Father Edwin is confident the school will figure it out — a process that starts with its student leaders.

Look what they’ve accomplished already, he said.

“They should be an inspiration to all,” he said. “They are setting an example. We can’t get adults in Congress to do what they did. We have a mess in the country because people don’t know how to compromise, talk to each other and recognize the other’s position.

“If they can pull this off, it will be one the school’s greatest achievements.”

Father Edwin points out that St. Benedict’s has a history of change — whether it be accepting African-American students, finding a reason to reopen in 1973 after a one-year shutdown or accepting some K-8 students, as it started to do a few years ago.

Some of those students — but not many — were female. A few, in fact, will be part of the class of students from Benedictine Academy that will soon join the high school students at St. Benedict’s.

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According to the agreement, up to 70 girls will create the first all-girls division of St. Benedict’s Prep. (The high school has approximately 500 boys.) So far, 63 have registered.

The school will have to decide how it will reopen when it gets clearance. And how it will be co-institutional.

A part of that will be figuring out how to offer the girls division the clubs and sports it was accustomed to at Benedictine Academy.

This is the one thing Father Edwin is not concerned about.

By the looks of it, he said, it appears the first all-girls division at St. Benedict’s Prep has some pretty strong leaders. And, remember:

“Don’t do for kids what kids can do for themselves.”

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