Profiles in Education:
Dr. Diana Meehan, Founder,
Archer School for Girls
It is a story that’s been repeated a thousand times in a thousand coed American classrooms: The boys assume the role of class clowns, exhibiting aggressive and spontaneous behavior. The girls conduct themselves so cautiously and courteously that they miss out on opportunities to participate, leading teachers to pass them over in favor of the more outspoken boys. It is this female behaviorism that author and educator Diana Meehan has termed “the girl pause” – and it was concern for her pre-adolescent daughter’s intellectual and personal growth against this all-too-familiar backdrop that led Meehan in 1995 to co-found the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles.
Fast forward twelve years. Dr. Meehan, who holds a Ph.D. in Communication from USC and is a founding director of its Institute for the Study of Women and Men, has just written a highly acclaimed book, Learning Like a Girl: Educating Our Daughters in Schools of Their Own, (see the review online, August 2007 at www.EducationUpdate.com) detailing her quest to educate her young daughter, her creation of The Archer School, and her research into other successful girls’ schools around the country. Education Update caught up with Meehan on a recent east coast trip and got a rare opportunity to learn first-hand about her motivations, triumphs and challenges in promoting single sex education for women.
Meehan’s journey to achieve her vision of an all girls’ school reads like one of her husband’s (TV writer/producer Gary David Goldberg) TV scripts, complete with unexpected twists and turns, angry villains, and shining heroes. In fact, she and Goldberg had already embarked on a national search to select a single-sex school for their daughter, Cailin (the Gaelic name’s literal translation is “female hero”), and they had actually identified three contenders that shared their educational philosophies while offering a college prep curriculum and a dynamic, innovative and inclusive mission. “I was unconsciously seeing what really good education for girls looked like,” reflects Meehan. Ultimately, she and Goldberg grew reluctant to uproot the family and move from their home, so Meehan began to collaborate with two women, Vicky Shorr and Megan Callaway, to start an all-girls, Grade 6-12 school in their Santa Monica neighborhood. Despite a clear mission and a positive working dynamic, what Meehan never anticipated was a neighborhood opposition so powerful (“there was everything—political opposition, betrayal, corruption and financial insecurity,” she recalls dramatically) that it took four years to wage a series of daunting, often dispiriting zoning and partisan battles. “Some of our opponents were misinformed, some were misguided, and some were misogynists. We won over the first two groups, who later apologized,” adds Meehan, whose highly coveted Archer School for Girls now garners the support of such luminaries as Tom Hanks, while purposefully embracing students of limited financial means.
With twelve years of operation under her belt since The Archer School’s 1995 inception as well as insightful research on a variety of other successful all-girls schools in the country, Meehan is prepared to offer up her formula for success. Underpinning the school’s mission is a powerful body of research indicating that coed schools can undermine the abilities, achievements, and independence of girls and that within a single-sex environment they can become active, assertive, and self-actualizing. Pedagogically, the Archer School utilizes empathy as a tool for learning and stresses the “wholeness of environment” and “connected learning.” In short, the girls learn not just in the classroom, but “through relationships, crises, family and communities… Because they feel a connection to the outside world, they take charge in ways that women in coed schools could never do…They see themselves as leads in their own play, actors in their own lives,” explains Meehan passionately, noting that the girls are guided by the notion that “I as a person can make the world a better place.” In one poignant example, the girls started a NASA-sponsored robotics team, competing nationally to make the best rocket. But when they realized that there were very few all-girls teams (and virtually none west of the Rockies), they created a foundation to fund the mentoring of girls’ robotics teams. Ultimately, they mentored nine middle and high school robotics teams; in a singular touch of irony, one of the teams they mentored recently beat The Archer School team in the regional championships. “Our girls were incredibly gracious. In this kind of environment, it’s really about what can we do together,” sums up Meehan.
Another important cornerstone of The Archer School is a commitment to racial and cultural diversity, with both the student body and faculty reflecting the same socioeconomic and racial diversity that exists in the mixed Santa Monica neighborhood. Meehan has developed a strong development initiative to raise scholarship monies for students who can’t afford the school’s tuition. Likewise, there’s a de-emphasis on the trappings of materialism that one might expect in the Los Angeles milieu. One hundred percent of the girls are either bussed, carpooled, or walk to school, so there are no shiny BMW’s parked in the lot. And every student is required to wear a uniform: “This outfit says, ‘I’m here to work,’” explains Meehan succinctly.
Archer’s statistics speak for themselves. One hundred percent of the students go on to college, many to Ivy League schools. Archer has demonstrated a remarkable track record in obtaining financial assistance for its needy college-bound students, amassing an impressive $1 million in college scholarships. And Meehan has no doubt that her young charges, imbued with the self-esteem that comes from their education in an all-girls institution, will continue to follow in the path of success so brilliantly laid out before them: “These girls will go out into their communities and they will help solve society’s problems,” says Meehan with utmost certainty. “They will be the leaders of the twenty first century.”#