Penguin Hall in Wenham sits on 50 acres of sweeping lawns and wooded landscape. Originally built as a summer estate, at different times it has been a home to the Sisters of Notre Dame, an advertising agency, and now an academy designed to provide girls with a unique and transformative education.
Founded in 2016 by Wenham residents Al and Molly Martins, along with Dean Tsouvalas of Hamilton, the Academy at Penguin Hall is the first all-girls independent school on the North Shore. Focused on preparing girls for college and life, the school draws from 45 communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. With 165 girls enrolled for the fall, the school is embarking on a new initiative—a five-day boarding option—giving girls who live farther away the chance to avail themselves of this school’s unique educational opportunity.
“We made the decision to offer a five-day boarding instead of seven days because it is important for the girls to have family time,” says Molly Martins, president of the school and mother of five. “The boarding option also provides a great opportunity for seniors to transition to living away from home during the school week before going to college.”
The Academy at Penguin Hall’s mission is to educate, enlighten, and empower young women to live and to lead exemplary lives. Jan Healy, Dean of Academics, who came to Penguin Hall five years ago with 30 years of experience at independent schools, has organized the curriculum around these questions: What? So What? Now What?
“The ‘What?’ is the content the girls are studying,” says Healy. “The ‘So What?’ invites students to pick the topic apart and take a dive deeper, and the ‘Now What?’ is the real-world application.
This approach holds much more meaning and value than teaching to a test and is built around deeper academic inquiry.”
Penguin Hall’s interdisciplinary, inquiry-based curriculum is valued by the teachers at the school. “I love the freedom and flexibility to design courses and deliver instruction that is in the best interest of the students,” says Bryon Williams, who lives in Topsfield and started teaching humanities at Penguin in fall of 2017 after teaching at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania. “Not being tied to a test allows us to put the most interesting material in front of the students. It is a teacher’s dream come true.”
One example Williams points to comes from his Activist Literature class. “We saw a play, The Peculiar Patriot, about mass incarceration,” says Williams. “The students were very interested and wanted to do more, so they each researched a different aspect of the issue and shared what they learned with the class. In keeping with the theme of the play, they each made a quilt square which was sewn into a quilt. It now hangs in the halls of the school along with dozens of other student-generated artwork.”
Craig Groton of Beverly came to Penguin in 2018 to teach computer science after a career in software development. He wanted the students in his web development class to work as a real software team, using the actual tools and techniques of the industry. Equally important to Groton was finding a real client.
“Because I like all of my projects to be ocean based, I contacted Ocean Alliance in Gloucester to see if they had any needs,” says Groton. “Dr. Iain Kerr, who runs the Alliance, told me they needed a way to show the public what they do, which is flying drones over whales around the world that pick up samples when they exhale.” For six weeks the students worked together on the same coding project, then they presented the site they had built to a very pleased Dr. Kerr.
The boardroom is another unique feature you will find on a tour of Penguin Hall. “We don’t want the first time one of our students walks into a boardroom to be at a job,” says Tsouvalas of the room that would fit in at any Fortune 500 company. “Our goal is to demystify the boardroom and help the girls see that they are the CEOs of their own lives.”
“Our philosophy is confidence over competence,” says Martins. “The one cheer that says ‘great job’ can be powerful. One criticism, however, can take a girl out of an environment. Once you develop confidence, the competence follows.”