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Opening an All-Girl Public School: Mary’s Story

Published on 04/28/2016

A speech about the launch of a public school in New York City was the “aha” moment for Mary to bring her interests in education, children, and her city together. She and her team opened the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls in 2015, serving under-resourced, high potential, St. Louis students.


Tell us a little about your background…

I spent my elementary school years in Jefferson City, Missouri, where my father was in state government. I went to a good public school and had something of a classic Midwestern upbringing, playing Monopoly and Kick the Can. I have an older sister, two younger sisters, and a younger brother and when I think of my childhood, I think mostly of all of them and my parents having happy, funny times.

When I was in eighth grade, we moved to Washington, D.C. as my father had been elected to the US Senate. It was a huge change for me to go from a small Midwestern town to D.C. and from a public school system to a private all-girls’ school called Holton Arms. But I was very ready for the change and for the academic rigor at my new school. I made friends quickly as the “new girl” and soon was able to take on leadership roles at Holton and loved the challenges in the classroom. During high school I was active in student government, yearbook, acting, and I loved doing my homework.

I went to Princeton as an undergraduate, majoring in religion. The four years there were full of personal growth as they are supposed to be. Overall, I’d say I was sort of tense in college about academics and social pressures, but I had plenty of fun as well. I went directly to Yale for law school after graduation, not so much because I wanted to be a lawyer, but because I wanted to continue being a student—going to class, the gym, the library. Yale Law School was a terrific place for me where I felt very much at home and ended up making my closest lifelong friends.

During a summer internship at a law firm, I met my husband Tom, who is also a lawyer. Tom and I were engaged during my third year in law school and married a few months after I graduated. We lived in Washington, D.C. and I worked for one year as a clerk for a federal judge in Baltimore and then as a junior associate at a D.C. firm called Covington & Burling, in the trusts and estates department. I enjoyed the work, but never felt as if I were totally confident in what I was doing—I suppose that is why a partner checks the work product.

Our first son, John, was born a few years into my work at Covington, at which point I began to work part time. This worked well enough—I was at the firm three days a week—but it was certainly not a partnership track. I didn’t mind that, though, and the firm was supportive enough of the arrangement.

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Our kids when they were young

My husband, who is from Minnesota, and I moved to St. Louis in early 1993 when he had a career change. We both wanted to move back to the Midwest and the timing was right. I didn’t want to practice law at that point because I could see that it wasn’t a long-term plan when I was focused on family, but I wanted to make sure that I established my “persona” in our new hometown as a working woman, so I started working right away as an Assistant Dean at Washington University. This was a big change from billing hours and being efficient to a job that involved a lot of just talking to people without a ton to show for it. I worked on freshman programming and general student advising.

Our second child was born about a year after we moved; at the time, I was working three days a week at Wash U. When she turned one, I decided to stop working altogether as the job wasn’t enough to pull me away from our two young kids. We had a third child two years later and I was a full time mom during that period, involved to some degree in the community, but mostly hanging with the kids, which I truly enjoyed.

The only thing I didn’t enjoy was that internal tension of having had the education and training to be a professional and feeling like I wasn’t using it. I worked with a career counselor to explore what exactly I was looking for that would allow me to resolve this internal tension.

When our youngest started second grade, I began to teach a freshman seminar at Washington University on the Bill of Rights. This was a great gig; I had my own little fiefdom, got to think about interesting things, and only did it one semester every year. Being on campus at Wash U fulfilled my need to be out of the house, use my brain, and connect with smart young people.


My family


When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

While I was teaching at Wash U, I also was very involved at my kids’ secondary school, John Burroughs, and always enjoyed my time at school as a volunteer and a board member. I also got involved with an organization called College Bound that works with under-resourced, high achieving students. I wore a few hats there, but ultimately became their Summer Internship Coordinator. I was doing everything part-time: teaching, College Bound, boards, etc. and it started to feel both ineffective and disjointed. My kids were starting to leave for college—they are each two years apart—and I felt I needed to sink my teeth into something deeper. I loved working in education and felt pulled toward improving educational opportunities for children who did not have options or access.

My “aha” moment came during an event at Washington University that I just happened to attend. Ann Tisch, a Wash U alumnae and member of the board, gave a speech at this event. She shared the story of her founding of an all-girls’ public school in New York City that has since grown into a network of schools called the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN). I had not known that all-girls schools could be public schools and when I learned about this, I knew it merged so many things that I care about—my positive experience at Holton Arms, quality education, teenage kids, St. Louis….

I spent some time learning about the YWLN model and thinking about whether I wanted to commit the time to exploring opening such a school in St. Louis. As luck would have it, Missouri had recently (2012) passed legislation allowing for public funding of single sex schools so that was not an obstacle. I talked to my family and friends about what life would look like if I pursued this (and really, none of us could have guessed correctly). At one point, a friend of mine advised me to stop using hypothetical language and start talking about opening a school in the future tense, as if it actually were going to happen, not as if it might happen. And that’s what I did.


What is your next act?

hawthorn-sealMy next act is Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls. It is the first single sex public school in Missouri. We are a charter public school and all of our girls live in the city of St. Louis.

We opened in August 2015 (I was 52) with 125 6th and 7th grade girls and will add a new 6th grade each year until we are fully enrolled in 2020 with 6th through 12th grades. Nearly all of our students are African American and 75% of our students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.

Hawthorn students are residents of the City of St. Louis. As a public school, we have an open admissions process. We recruit students by attending community events, hosting information sessions and open houses, media coverage on radio and newspapers, etc. Student recruitment looks very different in our second year now that we have students, parents, teachers and a program in progress to show prospective families.

Hawthorn is a college preparatory school with a particular focus on STEM. We are an affiliate of the Young Women’s Leadership Network (the network of schools founded by Ann Tisch) and Washington University serves as our institutional sponsor.

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Why did you choose this next act?  What other options did you consider?  

I chose to open Hawthorn because I wanted to focus my energy on something that matters and that I enjoy. I love school and I really enjoy team building, which is a big part of what I do—building a board, building a school culture, and building relationships in the St. Louis community.

I also wanted to make sure I was fully engaged in something when my own kids all left for college so I wouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I saw that certain programs are very beneficial for kids, but that the bricks and mortar of an actual school is the best way to have real impact on a student’s growth. I was also committed to making St. Louis a better place to live, for at least a few people.


How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?

For me the plunge was somewhat gradual. I’d been teaching and engaged in many community organizations so I wasn’t going from not working at all to working all the time. Also, the work on Hawthorn was gradual. First I pulled together a board, then we went through steps of securing affiliations, drafting the actual charter, etc. It remained part time for a few years.

The year my youngest left for college was the year I spent fully immersed in the planning stage: hiring the principal, raising funds, buying and renovating a school building, recruiting students. I could not have done that if I still had any children at home because I was committed to keeping them my priority and would not have had the time or focus that I was able to have once I became and empty nester.

We named the school Hawthorn because the hawthorn is Missouri’s state flower—a flower that blooms on a tree. The image of something beautiful growing from a strong and straight foundation is what appealed to us as an appropriate image for a girls’ school. Hawthorn trees also grow berries and thorns, which are appropriate images for teenage girls! Also, my own all-girls’ high school was called Holton Arms and I personally liked the Hawthorn-Holton connection.



How supportive were your family and friends?

I’ve found my family and friends to be incredibly supportive of me on this journey. They asked probing questions while I was still considering whether to commit to opening the school, about whether I was ready to spend so much time working, giving up weekly walks with friends, time with my husband, etc. But once I decided to do it, everyone has been so positive. Many of my friends have volunteered at the school, given money, asked questions, and listened.

My family is amazing. My husband has adjusted really easily (at least I think) to my working more than full time. My kids are really proud, though sometimes frustrated that I’m not as accessible to them as I used to be. My parents and siblings are big supporters of the school. There is certainly an element of “Mary, you’re working too hard… this isn’t good for you…this isn’t sustainable”… and that is true. But I think I’ve worked hard to maintain relationships and still make dinner, know what’s going on in the lives of the people I love, celebrate birthdays, etc.

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With my mom and sisters


What challenges have you encountered?

There are many challenges related to the long days and the requirement that I stay focused; they do take their toll on relaxation and basic work/life balance, but I figure that will change down the road.

My biggest challenge is just not having enough hours in the day to take care of things—from a cracked window in the science lab to a grant proposal to a student discipline problem. As a new organization, we are in start up mode and stretched thin, so I wear many, many hats. Looking back, I would have hired an assistant to help me, and I will!

Another challenge is that I really knew nothing about urban education, public education, or running a business. The learning curve has been unbelievably steep on matters ranging from human resources to standardized testing.

As for the challenges the school faces, the biggest two are exactly what you would think: Many of the girls are very far behind academically and there are many behavior/discipline issues that take a ton of energy away from teaching.

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Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I wouldn’t say there were times when I thought about giving up. There have been so many successes, small and big, along the way that it’s been easy to keep going—from having certain people agree to serve on the board, to having our charter approved, to successfully buying a building, to hiring an amazing principal, to having our students make academic and social/emotional gains. We have learned to celebrate the “small wins” on a daily basis with the students; this really helps keep the whole journey positive. Giving up is not an option once you have students and families counting on your school.



What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I’ve learned that I have a greater capacity for long hours of work than I would have predicted. I’ve learned that I’m not as good at multi-tasking as I am at staying focused, that my real strength lies in bringing people together. I’ve also learned that my “casual” approach is not always effective or appropriate and that sometimes I need to put my professional hat on and leave some of the self-deprecating or uncertain demeanor behind.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife, or maybe even opening a school? What resources do you recommend?

It’s so important to build solid relationships all along the way so that when you’re ready for your next act you have people to turn to who will support you. Also, remember that while you might have chosen the work and not necessarily had to do it, that doesn’t make it a hobby or frivolous. Whatever your motivation, once you make up your mind, your work is valuable and real so don’t sell yourself short. And I would also advise women making a change in midlife to try to keep things somewhat normal or predictable for your family so that they remain supportive and not resentful.

If you’re thinking about opening a school, take time to learn about urban education before plunging in headfirst. Spend time in a lot of different schools. Surround yourself with people who know more than you do about education and trust them.

Books I recommend:

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath

how girls THRIVE by JoAnn Deak

Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling by Rosemary C. Salomone

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (I also like Paul Tough’s Ted Talk on the subject).


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What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

My next next act will be to redesign/refine my role at Hawthorn. I am very busy with the constant day-to-day tasks of getting the school up and running and too much involved in the operations of the school. What I am looking forward to is stepping away from the weeds and become more focused on the mission and future of Hawthorn and its students.


Contact Mary Stillman at mstillman@hawthornschool.org

Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls


Twitter: @HawthornSTL


HeleneTStelian Musing
I’m Hélène Stelian, the Midlife Mentor with a passion for facilitating personal development in women 40+. Through my THRIVE Courses, I help introspective, curious, action-oriented women 40+ deepen their journeys of self-discovery and growth—and create their next chapter with courage and intention.



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  1. Anna Palmer

    This is an incredible story. You always seem to find them.

    • Hélène

      Mary is amazing right? Thanks Anna!


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