Saturday, November 13, 1999

All-girlschool at Oldenburg will be missed




BY KRISTA RAMSEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sometimes it takes years to mourn the things we have lost in life and to fully appreciate their significance. But 16-year-old Jackie Pettit feels the pain of it right now, as she watches a tradition she loves slowly slipping away from her.

        For the last three years, Oldenburg Academy in Oldenburg, Ind., has been her school and her community. She gave up a good deal to enroll there, leaving her home and family in Loveland to live with her aunt and uncle in Indiana so she could attend the private Catholic school. But what she got, she says, was worth the sacrifice.

        She has loved the intimate atmosphere of a high school with fewer than 200 students. With 35 in her junior class, “it's not enough to have a clique,” she says. She has loved the mixture of classmates from the city, the suburbs and areas so rural that they had to get home after school to milk the cows.

        And she has especially loved the power and pride in being educated at an all-girls' school. “If I have an opinion about something, I say it,” she says. “It's easier to do what you're there to do without thinking about how you look or who you have to impress.”

        It was what she wanted for her senior year, what she hoped would be an option for younger girls to come, and one day, perhaps, even for her own daughters. “It would be a chance to be themselves, a chance to learn without wondering about whether the guy sitting next to them thinks they're cute or not,” she says.

Research backs sentiment
        That, in a brilliant little nutshell, is what years of research have told us about single-sex schools for girls. They are a place for girls to think for themselves, vote for themselves, speak for themselves and achieve for themselves — a chance to move beyond cuteness and not to wonder what anybody in particular thinks about them at all.

        All-girls schools aren't for everybody. Some females do better in a coed setting. Some think it is more like real life, and that they can strengthen their own sense of self in the presence of boys, thank you very much.

        But for other girls, there is nothing so wonderful as a place of their own.

        And that is what Jackie Pettit mourns as she thinks about the changes next fall, when boys will begin entering the freshman class at the 147-year-old academy. Those of us who appreciate options for girls mourn her loss as well.

        School administrators say the decision was based on a growing demand from the families of boys in the area, and on economics. They say that while teen-age girls had an option for a Catholic education in southeastern Indiana, teen-age boys had to make the long trek to Catholic high schools in Ohio. They say enrolling boys meant a chance to grow, to serve a wider audience and to stay on stable financial footing.

        They say surveys had been sent home to families last year, and a thorough communications program outlined the plan for board members, the nuns involved with the school, the staff and parents.

Radio broke news
        The only problem is, nobody asked the girls.

        Those students who lived in the community heard the news on a local radio station on their way to school one morning, the day administrators had planned to share the news at an assembly.

        “I'd say I'd prefer not going coed unless it's the only way to keep the school open,” Jackie says. “But I'd like to have had some say in it, to have known, at least, that it was being considered.”

        That does not seem too much to ask.

        Indeed, it seems a shame, after training generations of strong young women to speak out and be heard, that the old Oldenburg Academy could slip away on this note.

        So, come next fall, let Oldenburg Academy become a good place for boys, an important option. But let it never forget that, for nearly a century and a half, it was a noble and worthy mission enough, to make a safe, sacred spot for girls.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, or e-mail her at krista_ramsey@hotmail.com.