After nearly a decade of imagining, networking, fundraising and planning, Laura Jeffrey Academy (LJA), a new girl-focused public charter middle school, plans to open its doors in St. Paul this September to its inaugural class of fifth- and sixth-grade students. Eventually the school will serve girls (and possibly a boy or two) in grades five through eight. The school is a dream of its founder, Cindy Reuther, who envisions a school where girls learn not only about math, English and science, but just as importantly. “[that] all girls get confidence in their smarts at a very young age.”
Build it right
Just where in St. Paul those doors will hang remains to be seen, however. As we went to press, LJA had not yet signed a lease, something that organizers had originally planned would be completed by now, though they are in negotiations. Reuther learned the hard way that the road to a successful charter school can be a bumpy one, but she is undaunted by missed deadlines for identifying a location and hiring initial staff, as long as everything’s in place for LJA’s planned opening on Sept. 2. As an organizational consultant who’s worked with struggling charter schools, Reuther said, “Something I heard a lot was that the whole experience felt like they were building the plane when it was in the air. I am a believer that the plane should be built on the ground.” This dream has been a long time in the making, and she is determined that it be executed properly.
Reuther traces the origins of LJA back to the early 90s, when she worked with St. Paul’s Wilder Foundation on a program for urban girls called Project Discover. “It started with a camp experience in Wilder Forest. Then we met with the girls monthly, doing programming to connect the girls across socio-economic, racial and ethnic lines.” Reuther always felt that the Project Discover girls would be better served in a school setting, where their connections to themselves and to their studies would be reinforced on a daily basis.
Furthermore, Reuther felt strongly that in our society, “nature is a privileged experience. And that’s wrong. [For urban kids,] time spent in nature gives them a broader sense of who they are in a bigger world. Their world is not just a piece of cement. They find what it’s like to be a part of the earth, that you’re part of a larger cycle. It’s one thing to know that milk in the store comes from a cow. The world feels different when you experience it.”
Reuther remembered the effect that time in the Wilder Forest had on the Project Discover girls, and that informed the choice of the Audubon Center of the Northwoods, near Sandstone, Minn., as the school’s charter sponsor. All students will take part in residential programs at Audubon, to “make that connection from their bodies to their brains,” and the connection from St. Paul to the natural world.
Although Reuther is a successful professional with her own consulting firm, she still wondered: “What if?” What if her school system had supported her body and mind? What if she had been accepted for herself? “I grew up in Langdon, N.D., a very small town. I was the tomboyish girl. I spent a few times in the principal’s office, because I did not do what little girls were supposed to do.”
Even with the support of her open-minded parents, Reuther said, “I didn’t even trust my own brain until graduate school-at 30!” In graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, she was inspired and challenged by her feminist theory and women’s studies classes. “I studied how men and women get voice and authority,” she said, and “I often saw girls taking a back seat. They were quieter. They would wait. Even with me challenging them, they were passive.”
Reuther knew there could be a better way. She recalled that in 2001, a pair of frustrated Minneapolis teachers had contacted her for help in chartering an all-girls’ school. The teachers saw middle-school girls struggling and discouraged, their confidence and self-esteem low. That project failed to take flight, but Reuther never forgot it. By 2004, Reuther and her business partner, Kai Michels, began brainstorming in earnest, eventually filing for the girl-focused school’s charter in 2005.
Who will attend
Much of the interest surrounding LJA has come from its plan to be “girl-focused.” Reuther was quick to note that the school follows Minnesota anti-discrimination laws and will not reject boys who wish to attend. “We’ll take anyone,” she stated firmly. “If a boy applies, we will have a discussion with him and his family to ensure that this is a good fit. If he wants to come, he will enroll. We do not discriminate.” Indeed, Reuther added, “I am the first to say this isn’t for every girl. But it provides parents with a choice, in a society that doesn’t give them choice.”
Another piece of the LJA story, Reuther said, is the commitment the school has to underserved girls. The goal of the program is to have at least 50 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. As a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine suggested, it can be difficult to untangle the many reasons that children fail in public school; socio-economic status may affect student performance as much as or even more than gender. “Once we sign our lease we will be knocking on doors in that community,” Reuther said. “We’re really concentrating on building relationships with communities of color.” Reuther is also committed to reaching out to families “… who don’t have access to the Internet to research options for their kids, who don’t have the funds to send their kids to private school.”
Though the school hasn’t yet opened, Reuther is already dreaming of its future. LJA’s waiting list has already begun adding future students, she said. “We have our first 2-month-old, and a 4-year-old. I think that speaks to the need.”
The ABC’s of a different kind of school
In addition to being girl-focused, Laura Jeffrey Academy has some other unique features, including:
• A year-round school schedule: 45 days of school followed by 15 days off, including a longer break in December and no school the entire month of August
• Programming available at no charge for students during intersession breaks
• Uniforms required for all students
• Partnership with Audubon Center of the Northwoods will provide outdoor learning experiences to urban girls
• Foundation grants will provide after-school tutoring to all interested students free of charge
• Classroom ratio of two teachers to every 25 students
• An educational director will support teachers and direct core curriculum; a separate administration and communications manager will oversee operation of the school