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Our Turn: In successful schools, culture is key

August 13, 2019

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The leaders of Sophia Academy and San Miguel were recently featured on the opinion page of the Providence Journal. Read more:

As we follow with keen interest the plans for improving Providence schools, we were moved by Naiem Mian’s story (told in the July 23 news article “State approves takeover of Providence public schools”). He is a student at West Broadway Middle School and recently spoke about the deplorable conditions at his school.

He also misses art class.

We are familiar with Naiem’s story.

Newly minted middle schoolers arrive at San Miguel School (for boys) and Sophia Academy (for girls) with similar stories. Our devoted teachers and staff, tireless volunteers, and dedicated mentors work hard to earn students’ trust. After some time, our students express relief at feeling safe and respected when they come to school. They are quick to add: “It is fun to learn stuff, too.”

This should be the experience of every student. Creating and maintaining this culture isn’t always easy, but it is a necessary investment to assure learning.

Our students are often below grade level when they first enroll. Nonetheless, academics are rigorous and expectations high. We believe firmly that our students are capable of achieving whatever they set out to do. We build our cultures around this conviction.

It starts with thinking small. Small schools. Small faculty teams. Small classes. Each of our schools enrolls 60-65 students in grades 5-8. Although we are both private, we are microcosms of the Providence Public Schools’ enrollment: 87% qualify for free or reduced meals and nearly 100% are students of color.

A typical day begins with morning meetings that set intentions and celebrate accomplishments. Warm greetings abound. Cellphones are off and stored in backpacks. And well-trained teachers are ready when our students test limits — which is not only inevitable, but developmentally appropriate. We empower our faculty to implement rules and manage their classrooms with shared routines and systems. This creates a predictable environment that frees teachers to ignite each student’s passion for learning, social justice, and achievement.

We know a safe, empowering environment enables students to explore and embrace their identities. So we intentionally prepare teachers and staff to work with students from different backgrounds, strive to diversify faculty and staff, and commit to single-sex education. An ethnographic study in California found that single-sex classrooms improve minority student outcomes in cultures of caring. As Providence experiments with new ideas, perhaps there are single-sex models that could be explored.

In our supportive cultures, students like Naiem gain the sense of belonging that is so critical to middle schoolers’ development as learners, friends, and citizens. They leave us ready to excel in selective public, private, and charter high schools, where they graduate on time and head for college, trade schools, or military service. We look on proudly as they become successful adults and engaged citizens.

We are heartened that Rhode Island’s new education commissioner is prioritizing school culture as essential to improving student achievement. As educators serving Providence students, we are ready and willing to help, especially when it comes to re-thinking middle school opportunities.

Although it’s a stage sometimes overlooked — as preschoolers’ early learning needs and high schoolers’ career readiness occupy the community’s focus — middle school is critical to every student’s intellectual, physical, social, and emotional development, a time when a student’s educational destiny often is sealed.

Our per-student cost is roughly equivalent to Providence Public Schools’, and our costs include enrichment programs, trips, and graduate support. A community of committed donors provides most of this funding.

Perhaps now is an opportune time to take a close and pragmatic look at our model to see what elements might be “scalable” for Providence schools.

We’ve learned that the price of education in Providence today comes at too great a cost, not only in dollars, but in the lost potential of our children. We know it’s possible to do better because we have seen it happen with the right investments of money, time, and, dare we say, love.

John Wolf is executive director of the San Miguel School. Maura Farrell is head of school of the Sophia Academy.

Sophia Academy Announces 2019 Woman of Wisdom
Save the Date for Annual Spring Gala on May 6, 2019

February 5, 2019

As a member of the Sophia board, Magaziner made countless contributions, including working to strengthen the board’s governance policies and procedures, and fostering community partnerships, such as with Trinity Rep.

“She has never forgotten the financial generosity of others when it came to achieving her own academic success, and long ago made the commitment to support other young women in their pursuit of a quality education,” Alison Eichler, Sophia Board President said. “Her astute business sense, combined with her genuine big-heartedness has made her a powerful advocate for Sophia.”

Magaziner currently serves as Board President of Trinity Rep, and was recently recognized as a 2018 YWCA Woman of Achievement. She is a graduate of Wellesley College, Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School and has a Master’s degree in history from Brown University. She made her career in business strategy consulting and co-founded an international consulting firm with her husband, Ira.

Sophia’s Women of Wisdom event, honoring Magaziner will be Monday, May 6, 2019 at the WaterFire Arts Center in Providence with past Women of Wisdom Liz Chace, Suzanne Murray, Joan Wernig Sorensen and Anne Szostak serving as honorary chairs. For more information visit the Gala page.

Kick off the New Year with Sophia, Trinity Rep, Providence Public Library

December 18, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Sophia Academy, along with Trinity Rep and the Providence Public Library will be hosting the popular community series, Context and Conversation on Thursday, January 17, 2019.

This free event will feature a panel discussion about how war, migration, escape, alliance, family, memory, myth, erasure, fate, and faith shape our lives as it relates to Trinity’s production of black odyssey by Marcus Gardley.

Providence Public Library Program & Exhibitions Director/Trinity Rep Conversationalist-in-Residence Christina Bevilacqua with moderate a discussion with:

  • Marco McWilliams, Program Coordinator, Swearer Center, Brown University, educator and public scholar of African American history
  • Maiya Gamble Rivers, Manager of Programs and Outreach for the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, Brown University
  • Nada Samih-Rotondo, ELL Teacher, Paul Cuffee Charter School, and writer
  • Lt. Col. Mathies J. Santos, USAF, Ret, Associate Chief, Patient Services, Providence Veterans Administration Medical Center
  • Chanda Womack, Founding Executive Director of ARISE (Alliance of RI Southeast Asians for Education)
  • Josephine Cook and Idowu Demola, Sophia Academy students

This is the second year Sophia Academy is opening its doors to this lively community discussion. In February, 2018, the school hosted a Context and Conversation discussion about power and gender as it related to the Trinity production of Into the Breeches.

Trinity Rep’s black odyssey Context and Conversation at Sophia Academy

WHEN: Thursday, January 17, 2019
5:30 p.m. Doors open for snacks and mingling
6 p.m. Program begins

WHERE: Sophia Academy
582 Elmwood Ave, Providence, RI 02907

RSVP: Ana Ceballos at Sophia Academy
(401) 784-0021

For more information about Trinity Rep Context and Conversation, click here

Context & Conversation is a public conversation series co-produced by Trinity Repertory Company and Providence Public Library in collaboration with community partners.

Sophia Academy Welcomes New Head of School

November 8, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Sophia Academy recently officially welcome its new head of school, Maura L. Farrell at an installation ceremony at the Roger Williams Park Casino in Providence, Rhode Island.

“We are delighted to officially welcome Maura to Sophia Academy,” said Alison Eichler, President of the Board of Trustees during the program. “With each passing milestone, it becomes more apparent: Sophia under Maura’s leadership will continue to provide our students a challenging, engaging education – in and out of the classroom.”

“I have nothing but excitement and love in my heart for the next generation of Sophia graduates,” said Taiwo Demola, Sophia Class of 2014, Classical Class of 2018 and soon-to-be freshman at Mt. Holyoke College, who offered her reflections on Sophia during the ceremony. “It is my pleasure to welcome the new head of school into a community that means so much to me.”

“Educating girls makes lives, families, and communities stronger,” Farrell said during her remarks. “And educating middle school girls well helps them navigate a crucial turning point in their lives.”

Most recently, Farrell was the associate head of school at Winchester Thurston in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Wood Receives Presidential Recognition for Science Curriculum

June 25, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Sophia Academy Science teacher Alyssa Wood was recently officially recognized with a presidential award for teaching excellence in Science, the highest honor in the United States for K-12 teachers. In 2016 Alyssa was honored at the state level, which kicked off a rigorous two-year vetting process for this national award.

Wood was one of only 140 individuals nationwide (two from Rhode Island) to earn this honor from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation. She returned home to a certificate of special recognition from Governor Gina Raimondo.

Her excellence as a teacher was also featured in the July issue of Science Scope, the magazine of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). The article recounts a research project on teaching science that was conducted in Wood’s Sophia Academy classroom; the researcher observed her classroom and identified a set of principles and best practices for ensuring all students, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic background can develop “positive, science-linked identities.”
Sophia Academy

Moniz Receives Golden Apple Honors

January 5, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Sophia Academy today announced, Melissa Moniz was recently surprised with the Golden Apple Award from NBC10, Hasbro and the Rhode Island Department of Education. Member of the Sophia Class of 2017 nominated Moniz for the honor.

“Mrs. Moniz made us human calculators,” the graduates stated in their brief interview with Patrice Wood of NBC10.

Under Moniz’s direction the math program at Sophia has grown to focus on a student’s individual strengths and needs to build confidence. This attention combined with extra instructional time has resulted in every student completing Alegebra 1 by the time they graduate.

“We are ecstatic for Melissa to receive this honor – she is a tremendous teacher, colleague, friend and mentor to so many in the Sophia family,” said Gigi DiBello, head of school. “Our entire faculty is a tremendous team that has created a wonderful culture of learning at Sophia for all of our students.”

Sophia Academy Announces Next Head of School

September 20, 2017

Providence, Rhode Island – Sophia Academy today announced Maura L. Farrell will be its next Head of School as of July 1, 2018. Farrell is currently the associate head of school at Winchester Thurston in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She will succeed Gigi DiBello who will be leaving the school after 11 years of dedicated service.

“We are delighted to welcome Maura to Sophia Academy,” said Alison Eichler, Board President. “We are confident that she will fully embrace the mission and culture of Sophia – valuing our unique strengths – and build upon them. We also look forward to introducing her to our community partners over the coming year.”

“I am honored to accept this position at Sophia Academy, and I’m deeply impressed and inspired by the school,” said Farrell, Sophia’s next Head of School. “Sophia’s guiding principles, mission, and values resonate with my own convictions about education, about girls and women, and about equity. I feel particularly fortunate to be stepping into this role after Gigi DiBello’s many years of leadership, during which the school took so many significant leaps forward while maintaining its social justice ethos.”

Founded in 2001, Sophia Academy, located in the Elmwood neighborhood in Providence, currently enrolls 61 students and has a full time faculty of four.

“This is an exciting time for Sophia. Maura will be joining an outstanding team of faculty and staff, who come to school every day ready to support student learning in a safe, joyful and generative environment,” said DiBello, Sophia’s current Head of School. “I look forward to making my last year our strongest one yet, and to working with Maura on a seamless transition.”

“I wish to extend my deepest gratitude to Gigi for taking my vision of creating a safe place for middle school girls to find their voice, and making it a reality,” said Sister Mary Reilly, founder of Sophia Academy. “And I am more optimistic than ever about our future knowing Maura believes in our mission to change the lives of girls from low-income homes through an empowering education.”

In addition to her current position, Farrell has served as Assistant Head for Planning, Director of Institutional Advancement, Director of the Capital Campaign and Director of Communications at Winchester Thurston. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA and an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.