Saint Francis’ decision to go coed gets a mixed reaction
After 81 years of all-female enrollment, Manoa Valley's Saint Francis School plans to take baby steps into a coed future, saddening some former students who say the single-sex environment helped them succeed.
Saint Francis School
Address: 2707 Pamoa Road, Manoa Valley
Founded: 1924, by the Sisters of the Third Franciscan Order, Syracuse, N.Y.
Enrollment: 390, preschool and 6-12
Tuition: $7,200 (grades 9-12), $5,900 (grades 6-8)
The 390-student school wedged between the Koolaus and the University of Hawaii said yesterday it plans to introduce a coed kindergarten class next fall to go with the current grades six through 12.
A new grade level will be added each year as that initial kindergarten class moves up, until Saint Francis becomes a full preschool-to-12th-grade institution in six years.
The Sisters of Saint Francis and its board of directors made the decision after studying the "long-term viability of the school in a changing Hawaii community," a school announcement said.
However, the school's principal, Sister Joan of Arc Souza, said business considerations were a minor factor, though she noted that the school expects to capitalize on a shortage of elementary-level Catholic school options in and around Manoa.
She said the move will allow the school, which has operated a coed preschool for years, to continue to provide an education to its preschool boys as they get older.
"Businesswise, it will be good, but it wouldn't have been negative to keep doing what we're doing now. But we feel it's just better educationally," she said.
Reaction from students, parents and alumni was mixed, with some puzzled by what seemed an apparent about-face.
Two years ago, Souza told the Star-Bulletin she was committed to the all-girls format, saying boys command more of a teacher's attention and can keep girls from speaking up.
Lisa Palm, mother of a Saint Francis eighth-grader, said that while she has no problem with a coed climate, the move could sow confusion because the school has always emphasized the superiority of the single-sex environment.
"That's always been the attitude, so it'll be interesting how the school explains this," she said.
Souza is credited with boosting enrollment at the school after it dipped to less than 300, and solidifying its financial footing in recent years by developing new sources of income, such as the preschool. The moves followed a threat by the head of her religious order to close the school.
Souza says Saint Francis remains in the black. Efforts to reach members of the school's board of directors yesterday were unsuccessful.
Karen Winpenny, a 1982 Saint Francis graduate, said she recognizes the business reasons for going coed but is still saddened by it.
"Without boys around, I didn't have to worry about what I looked like and was able to concentrate. It empowered young women to really do well in life. But maybe I'm just old-fashioned," said Winpenny, who now runs her own marketing and public relations firm.
Cierra Haney-Agor, who graduated last year, said she was terribly shy when she enrolled at Saint Francis after attending a local public school.
"Being at an all-girl school really helped me open up," she said.
But she said Saint Francis' strong social and philosophical underpinnings should help all students accept the change, adding that the go-slowly approach also will ease the transition.
The school's future in Manoa was in doubt two years ago as the administration flirted with a move to Kapolei. But since then it has built a new gymnasium that will open early next year.
Souza said there is vacant space on the 11-acre campus to accommodate the expansion and that more will be freed up when all athletic offices move into the new gym complex.