When The Academy at Penguin Hall celebrated its first graduates last spring, five girls left their names on stones in the courtyard of the 1929 estate, setting the foundation for a full patio. As this all-girls preparatory high school in Wenham begins its second year, it will double in size to over 120 students. That’s twice the number of girls who can take advantage of small class sizes, state of the art technology, interdisciplinary learning, and a magical stone castle setting on 50 acres of lush green grass and ancient trees.
With a focus on math and science, the school is preparing young women for jobs that haven’t been created yet, says Dean Tsouvalas, Penguin Hall’s director of advancement and communication. “The world is moving at such a fast pace, but the educational system isn’t. The nice thing is we get to do things differently.”
The school turns convention on its head, with young women learning geometry by building a table for the theatre department and honing math skills by questioning statistical claims on Facebook. Students grasp the culture and issues of multiple African nations by conducting research and interviews for their own glossy magazines.
Amid the leaded glass windows, fireplaces, and ornate sculptures of dragonflies and penguins, girls switch classes and receive announcements using civilized chimes more typically heard in French train stations. They have their own rock band, do yoga on rolling green hills, make highly political art, and eat balanced meals like roast turkey and fresh greens in a dining hall run by an Italian chef, before scraping their own plates and creating almost zero food waste. In a gorgeous room with 360-degree windows, they assemble regularly to discuss their culture of kindness.
Many of them initially don’t think they want to be in an all-girls school, says Molly Martins, Penguin Hall’s founding president. But once they spend time in this supportive environment with zero tolerance for bullying, where meeting to discuss both joys and concerns is common practice, they are happy to be among the ladies. The school is then divided into even smaller communities, Harry Potter-like houses, with a mix of ages and communication styles, each one named after an empowered woman from history, such as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, or Ruby Boyer Miller, the progressive-minded divorcée, who built the enchanting Wenham estate as her summer home.
“Students are brought together to work toward a common goal,” says Julie Calzini, the school’s director of curriculum, who created the house system. “This teaches them to use their voices effectively. That way, we can mediate an issue that could otherwise go unnoticed or unaddressed. We can solve it immediately. It empowers them to be who they want to be.”
Being who they want to be is literally written all over the school, on Post-it notes from a junior retreat that implore their classmates never to give up, and in a large painting that won an award from nearby Endicott College depicting a desperate drowning polar bear. Graduating seniors curate shelves in the cozy student lounge with carefully chosen books and games left for younger students.
Many of those who attend the school would not have called themselves artists prior to attending, says art teacher Kate Riley, who has taught in public and private schools and worked at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. “Instead of all of us painting the same still life, I let them research things they are passionate about and they create these pieces,” she says, referring to the artwork that covers the entire school. For example there’s scrawled messages to Donald Trump about climate change, sketched costumes for a modern-day production of Hamlet, and a dress made from plastic water bottles.
The day I visited, several students had just learned of their staff nomination to take part in a summer leadership program on social issues at nearby Gordon College. Jill Veader, one of the chosen students, is interested in a career in writing and plays bass, piano, and mandolin. When asked about the gorgeous environment of Penguin Hall, Veader thinks for a second and then says, “It’s what’s inside the walls. The walls don’t teach you. It’s the people.”
One of those people is the enthusiastic Sherry Cook who encourages her students’ passion for math and science. In a bright classroom with art on the walls and tables that allow for collaboration, students work together as Cook, a former mechanical engineer, explains her teaching strategy. “We’re born naturally curious, looking for patterns, grouping things,” she says. “Kids actually realize that math is creative.”
Instead of searching for the answers in the back of the textbook, students are given unique problems in the hallway by teachers and staff and told to solve them on the spot.
“She tells us not to be afraid, that it’s OK to fail,” says junior Erin Murray.
It’s the second-to-last day of school. Students are looking forward to summer break. Still, in the dining hall, Lila Caplan and Angela Mayes are feeling nostalgic about their freshman year. With one wearing a Star of David around her neck and the other a cross, they talk supportively about various projects from the year, like winning a mock trial against boys from another school.
The two compare public schools, religious schools, and the diversity found at Penguin Hall. “It has surprised me how much everyone gets along,” says Caplan, who is from Swampscott. The culture, says Caplan, reminds her of a key word in the school’s motto: empowering. “If we want something done, we have to do it ourselves.”
“You’re not being forced,” says Mayes, who lives in Reading, “but the environment makes you want to do it.”
On my earlier visit to Penguin Hall, the first students had not yet arrived. Tsouvalas took me around, sharing how it would be…soon…once the girls settled in.
This time, I can see his predictions have come true. Looking around at the energetic, confident young women, he says, “It’s been incredibly powerful to build a community.”
In addition to doubling enrollment, the school is adding six new teachers, and has the ability to keep growing. The historic estate has plenty of room to keep expanding for years to come.