2008 Changemaker: Girl-focused education

Cindy Reuther & the Laura Jeffrey Academy

Cindy Reuther. Photo by Emma Freeman.

Cindy Reuther. Photo by Emma Freeman.

Cindy Reuther knows sex discrimination firsthand. The businesswoman remembers learning, shortly out of college, that she was earning less than male colleagues doing the same job. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. But that was just the beginning.

“As a young woman working with coed groups [I saw] girls in the background rather than stepping out,” Reuther said. Always passionate about equity for girls and women, she wanted to give middle-school girls an educational option that would enable them to flourish and overcome situations of inequality.

Reuther was also conversant with recent studies that prove that girls-only education can provide girls with opportunities that might pass them by in traditional mixed-gender classrooms. Time and time again, studies from countries around the world of girls from kindergarten to college have found that girls are more likely to explore “traditionally male” subjects from woodworking to computer science and everything in between if their classrooms are female.

It was time to do something about it, she decided-so she started a school. Laura Jeffrey Academy (LJA) opened its doors this September to its first class of students. The St. Paul charter middle school can’t legally refuse boys, but it markets itself as “girl focused” and so far no boys have applied to attend. LJA is the culmination of Reuther’s dream: an organized, financially sustainable entity that provides excellent educational opportunities that build academic confidence, especially for underserved girls. “We intentionally recruit from underserved populations,” Reuther said.

The school is named for a Minnesota woman who was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Macalester College. Laura Jeffrey went on to earn a master’s degree and become a librarian, committing her life to learning and community.

In that spirit, LJA’s motto is “asking questions, making choices.”

LJA’s focus on girls is just one of the school’s differences. Another is its focus on year-round learning. The moderate breaks between sessions are the perfect length to hold “intersession activities” like the one this fall for which they partnered with the local group TVByGirls. The students were able to produce their own short films about issues they wanted to cover-like bullying and peer pressure. In addition to the year-round curriculum, LJA is using other innovative methods like team-teaching and interdisciplinary learning so that students retain a maximum amount of material and develop skills to make connections between what they’ve learned. “Interdisciplinary learning is a best practice but it’s hard to institute … budget-wise and staff-wise,” Reuther said. But she’s not afraid of a challenge and the school is making it work.

The word’s been getting out about LJA. In 2008-2009, the school offers grades five and six, and plans to expand a grade each year until 2010, when it will be a grade five through eight school. The school has had such a good response from parents that 60 sixth graders are already enrolled for the fall of 2009. Reuther believes the program can be replicated across the country and internationally and plans on documenting the formation process, because, as she says, “The girls coming to LJA are thriving!”

Get Involved
Want to enroll a girl in Laura Jeffrey Academy, volunteer your time, or just learn more? The school, located at 1550 Summit Avenue in St. Paul, is online at www.laurajeffreyacademy.org or call 651-414-6000.