Harpeth Hall: ‘Tenacious’ curriculum, dedication to tradition

Friday, October 10, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 41
By Sheila Burke

Harpeth Hall’s new head of school is a fierce proponent of single-sex education who says that an all-girls school can nurture a female mind, especially one interested in going into a STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math.

Stephanie Balmer became head of school at Harpeth Hall in July. The all-girls school, which enrolls students in grades 5 through 12, has a tradition of molding women who excel in business, science and the arts.

Balmer previously held positions at Agnes Scott College, a liberal arts school for women, and at Dickinson College.

She has a degree in political science from Murray State University and an MBA from the Stetson School of Business and Economics at Mercer University-Atlanta.

She is pursuing her doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania, which she expects to complete in May 2015.

Balmer spoke with The Ledger about Harpeth Hall’s long tradition of academic excellence and the advantages of going to an all-girls school.

Q: You are someone who believes in the power of single-sex education. What do you think it offers that a co-ed school would not?

A: “I spent 17 years at Agnes Scott. In my early years there, I very quickly found women who took a personal interest in me and became mentors and role models in ways that I had not ever imagined possible. And that, in turn, was precisely the type of experience that our undergraduates benefitted from each and every day, in the classroom and outside the classroom.

“Gender from a faculty and administrative role was less important. It didn’t matter whether they were being taught by male professors or female professors. It was the underlying mission, purpose and values of being in a space where women are taking risks every day, either in what they study, in what they do, in what they say and being able to do that in a place and space that’s nonthreatening.

“That, to me, is where there is such a gift, that young women – in the case of Harpeth Hall, girls and young women – are able to have that experience each and every day.

“I have found that Harpeth Hall alumnae are committed and dedicated to each other. They continue to make space in their lives for these long-lasting female relationships. That’s powerful, and that’s something that I certainly believe to be one of many attributes of single-gender education for women.’’

Q: Do you think that single-gender education is better in terms of helping women excel in math and science, subjects they don’t traditionally gravitate toward?

A: “I would argue that single-sex education encourages girls and young women to develop and nurture interest in STEM fields in ways that co-educational classrooms simply do not. Much of it has to do with learning styles. Women learn differently than men.

“We have been very intentional in our hiring of middle school and upper school teachers who are deeply committed to developing and nurturing girls and women in STEM fields. Certainly there is a commitment across the entire curriculum – the arts, the social sciences, the humanities – but in STEM we recognize there is a particular responsibility given the misrepresentation nationally of young women who chose STEM fields as a part of their undergraduate experience and in graduate professional schoolwork.’’

Q: What are your goals for Harpeth Hall?

A: “In year one, my goals are really to be able to listen and to get to know and understand what are the attributes that define Harpeth Hall on its best day.

“What do we think is a best day for Harpeth Hall, and what are the attributes that really define that best day? Is there a particular synergy on campus that’s palpable? Is it when we know the girls are being introduced to new knowledge? Is it when the faculty believes that they are a resource and supported in ways that allow them to be their best selves? For the 687 women for whom we have responsibility, are there ways in which we can measure whether they are their best self on that particular day?

“In terms of thinking about the future, we have so many parts of our curriculum that are just extraordinary, and I believe there are places in our curriculum where we can shine an even brighter light on the work that our faculty and our students are achieving together, are collaborating. STEM will continue to be a priority.’’

Q: How would you describe the school?

A: “It’s tenacious, intellectual, risk-taking, energetic, rigorous.’’

Q: What do you think makes Harpeth Hall different from other schools?

A: “I think that certainly the single-gender commitment is special and not one that we should ever take for granted. I would also say that this is a place that celebrates difference and is a very inclusive community, and that to me, is such an important message that we send our middle school and our upper school students as they are developing those early thoughts and ideas of the type of people that they will become.’’

Q: There are several elite private schools in Nashville. Why do you think parents chose to send their daughters to Harpeth Hall?

A: “We are so fortunate. Nashville is such a strong educational community.

“I know that parents are attracted to Harpeth Hall because it’s single gender, because of its progressive history, the commitment to intellectual rigor, the engagement and energy and the curriculum, strength of the faculty, the small classes, rich resources.

“So much of what we’re teaching here is confidence and taking risks. In other words: Take risks in safe places, so if you fall down, you have people to support you and who are going to help you get back up. That’s a really important part of what we do here.’’

Q: What should the parents expect when they enroll their children in Harpeth Hall?

A: “They should expect a very rigorous and contemporary curriculum, a faculty with high standards and that their daughters will be surrounded by girls who are equally as curious and motivated as theirs.

“Our faculty is deeply involved in their lives from a co-curricular, extra-curricular perspective, so their daughters are going to make meaningful relationships with adults who are going to be there to support them, to guide them. And they’re going to make meaningful relationships and friendships with other students.’’

Q: What do you look for in an applicant?

A: “I’m getting ready to begin my first admission cycle, so it would be a little premature for me to be able to speak to that.

“But there is certainly an interest in ways that we can find intellectual curiosity, ways that we see strong academic performance that suggests that an applicant will be successful here.

“The idea is to make an informed decision with an offer of admission that will really confirm that should a student chose to come [here] that she will just continue to develop into her best self. And, if for whatever reason, previous performance suggests that that’s not the case, that’s where I think there’s an opportunity for discussion.

“I’ve talked with parents who have said my child was on the wait list or did not receive an offer last year but we really, really believe that this is the best place for her, she worked really hard, she earned her spot.

“So, I think an interview is an important part of the admissions process because there is more to a girl, to a young woman, than simply her transcript.’’

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

A: “I’m the sixth head of school. Ann Teaff preceded me and passed the baton to me. I had an opportunity at my investiture on Sept. 5 to really reflect on the previous five heads and the skill sets, the talents that they each brought to the position and the ways that the school grew during the time that they were here.

“I’m just really looking so forward to working with this community, the faculty, the students, the trustees, the parents, the alumnae, to really identify how a great school becomes greater.’’