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Penguin Hall: An All-Girls Preparatory High School

The private school in Wenham empowers and enlightens the North Shore’s young women.

“So, as you can see, it’s not school as usual,” says Dean Tsouvalas, while stepping onto a balcony overlooking the pristine, lush green grounds of Penguin Hall. No, it’s definitely not school as usual. The resemblance to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning. As Tsouvalas, Penguin Hall’s director of advancement and communication, says, “When you walk through that door, it ups your game.” Indeed, crossing the enchanting threshold into Penguin Hall, through the ornately sculpted front door adorned with spiderwebs and dragonflies, is to step into 1929, into a world created by a confident, independent woman. That woman was Ruby Boyer Miller, a progressive-minded divorcée, who built the magical Wenham place as her summer home. Fittingly, smart girls are now calling Penguin Hall their educational home. The Academy at Penguin Hall is the only college preparatory high school for girls in Essex County. With a goal of 600 students, the school opens this September with 65 young ladies, who may ascend the floating staircase, study in the home’s original library with its fireplace and beveled windows, and sit in state-of-the-art classrooms that resemble the conference rooms in top global companies. “Immediately, when you see it, you’re blown away,” says Melissa Caplan, a public school teacher whose daughter Lila starts as a first-year student this fall. “It makes you feel special.” If you listen to a property, it tells you what it wants to be, says Molly Martins, Penguin Hall’s founding president, who worked with the building’s previous owner to make the school a reality. Molly and Al Martins believe their whole lives have prepared them to open this school. The fact that they have raised five daughters is a good start. They run a commercial construction company and took on the $10 million acquisition of the 105,000-square-foot facility and 50-acre campus. It helps when you have Jim Mullen agreeing that an all-girls school, dedicated to empowering and enlightening young women, is the best use of the property where he ran Mullen Advertising Agency for many years before it sat vacant for the last seven. At $22,000, tuition is half the price of other nearby private schools, and scholarships and financial aid are available. How does a brand-new school define success? That’s easy, says Martins. “I want students to say, Which college or university would be lucky to have me?” That doesn’t always mean an Ivy League, she adds. Martins watched her own kids spend hours on homework each night. At Penguin Hall, students will work hard from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then be daughters and sisters in the evening. Finding balance is increasingly difficult, and helping girls do that is important, says Martins. Though she’s a teacher herself, Caplan agrees with the policy of less homework. “As far as I can tell, no one learns anything new from homework,” she says, adding that Penguin Hall’s plans to help with college applications and bring in outside mentors and experts is more important. “It provides self-esteem, confidence, the ability to look adults in the eye. My daughter loves that. It’s like setting them up for their first job interview.” In addition to turning out global citizens, future CEOs, and young women confident in math and science, another measure of success, says Martins, will be girls who know how to be kind. “There’s been a false path set before us on what it takes to get ahead,” she says. Women tend to be competitive at the wrong time and in the wrong place, too often off the lacrosse field, tearing each other down. This is a positive for Caplan, who says her daughter experienced bullying in public school and has looked forward to a more supportive community. “We’ve suffered through some of the girl drama,” she says. “Teens can be good at hiding it—being nice in front of the teacher.” Keval McNamara, whose daughter Molly is a transfer student this fall, agrees. “I’m just thrilled that kindness, caring, thinking of others, and giving back, are at the core of Penguin Hall. That’s a huge reason we’re looking at it. Molly feels it’s a safe environment, emotionally.” Students at the Academy are encouraged to follow a spiritual path—be it organized religion or yoga and meditation. Having a grounded center, a place to go when things get dark, and finding coping skills are vital, says Martins. A community service component is part of the curriculum set down by Julie Calzini, who developed the academic program based on tenets set forth by the campus minister. Year one is Who Am I, year two is Decision Making, year three is Empathy and Awareness and during year four, Finding My Voice, students will examine the role of women in the church and their own role as women of faith. A course in social justice provides opportunities for community service and for reflecting on lessons learned from volunteering in a nursing home, food pantry, or a hospital. Creative courses this fall include “The Drama of Politics” and “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” A rigorous math and science program explores physics, calculus, and financial literacy. The school has seen as many as 600 applications from teachers turned on by the pedagogy from as far away as Australia and Qatar. This thrills Calzini. “I’ve been in schools for 20 years, and I love to look at what works and what doesn’t,” she says. Project-based learning provides students with an authentic real-world experience in which they gain not only content knowledge but also the 21st-century skills necessary for success in college and beyond. In addition teachers are encouraged to observe and participate in other classes. A history teacher should go to art class and imagine opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, says Calzini. Studying sustainability could turn into building a tiny house on the property. In addition to an athletic program that includes cross-country running and swimming, a wellness component will be about nutrition, with plans to plant vegetable gardens and free time for yoga or trail walking. “It’s individualized wellness,” says Calzini. “It considers the whole person. It won’t be kickball in the school yard. It’s sort of follow your bliss.” Even the application process seems bliss-following, with a one-page form and a three-minute video. Test scores are not the focus. There are no AP classes. “We’re looking to spark a love of meaningful learning,” says Tsouvalas, “not drill and bubble fill.” Tsouvalas, who has school-aged children, including two daughters, also saw Penguin Hall as a school and says the stars aligned only last summer when he met the Martins. The plan accelerated when Wakefield’s Nazareth Academy closed. One fourth of Penguin Hall’s students are coming from there. During a visit this summer, the Nazareth students said they felt like they’d “hit the jackpot,” says Tsouvalas. With a passion for storytelling, Tsouvalas can make anyone wish to turn back time and be a student again. Tsouvalas tells stories of when he helped launch the FX network, worked with Diane Sawyer at 20/20 and helped build brands for the Washington Post company. Combine these with the time he was a classroom teacher in Brockton and his background is perfect for this new role. During our tour, we sat at a conference table with state-of-the-art technology for videoconferencing with other schools around the world. We passed throngs of busy construction crews and saw pigeonholes that bore the names of the Mullen worldwide clients. We stood in one of the many long corridors and peeked into the tiny cells where the Sisters of Notre Dame slept, after buying Penguin Hall in 1962. There are three different versions of the story behind the sculpted penguins that grace the entrance and give the mansion its name. Penguins could be there because of the tuxes worn by party guests in the Gilded Age, or they could reflect nun habits. The story most told is that they were a gift to Ruby, the progressive-minded divorcée, from her friend, an Arctic explorer, whom she may or may not have seen romantically. Even though the school year was at least three months out, Tsouvalas handed me a notepad, a pen, and a car sticker, all bearing the logo of the Academy at Penguin Hall. “It feels as though divine intervention has helped all of us come together.” Penguin Hall 36 Essex St, Wenham 978-468-6200