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Students in graduation

St. Benedict’s Prep to Open New Prep Division for High School Girls

With their school closing, girls from Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth take the initiative to propose separate new division for St. Benedict’s—and partner with the boys to make it happen.

Newark, N.J., June 1, 2020 –– When Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth, N.J., announced earlier this year that it would close its doors at the end of the school year, students at the all-girls’ school were devastated. They turned to what many would consider an unlikely source for help: the boys of St. Benedict’s Prep. A top concern for the girls was continuing their education in the tradition of St. Benedict.

Both urban schools have operated under a unique educational model that puts students in charge of school decisions, under the guidance of administrators. The girls didn’t want to lose that opportunity for leadership. So, they asked the boys to consider a new, separate St. Benedict’s Prep Girls Division. The boys’ answer was a resounding yes.

  Fr. Edwin Leahy, O.S.B.

The boys then approached Rev. Edwin Leahy, O.S.B. ’63, headmaster of St. Benedict’s Prep, to present their proposal. All of the students were adamant that they wanted to maintain single-sex educational models for both the boys and the girls. Their idea: to institute a parallel program for the girls ingrained with the same principles that have shaped leaders from St. Benedict’s for more than 150 years.

 "How could we say no?” said Fr. Ed, who has led the all-boys St. Benedict’s since 1973 and oversaw its transformation into a national model of urban education. “At Benedict’s we offer a gift to students: the chance to not only own their education, but to lead. It’s an opportunity kids from Newark, Elizabeth and other urban areas rarely get. When the boys and girls approached us, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s try to find a way to make this happen.’”

Empowered by their Benedictine education, the girls say they saw no reason to sit back while others decided their educational fate. “We knew that we couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and not be part of the conversation and part of the solution,” said Karen Calles ’21. “We needed to get the job done and the guys at St. Benedict’s would totally get it.”

This isn’t the first time St. Benedict’s has responded to the educational needs of the community. Previously an all-boys school for grades 7-12, three years ago St. Benedict’s took over the operation of the former St. Mary Elementary School in Newark. Today, St. Benedict’s operates a coed Elementary Division for grades K-6, a coed Middle Division for boys and girls in grades 7 and 8, and an all-boys Prep Division for grades 9-12.

Adding an all-girls Prep Division is the logical next step, said Sekou Diabate ’21. “We couldn’t see a logical reason why girls shouldn’t have the same opportunities we have here at St. Benedict’s,” he said. “This school is founded on the principles of character and respect. The girls at Benedictine Academy don’t have a school to go to next year. So, for us it was simple—If we can help them, why shouldn’t we?”     

With approval from the Monks of Newark Abbey and the School's Board of Trustees, the Girls Prep Division will start in the upcoming school year. More details of the partnership will be released in coming weeks—including the number of students and faculty—and St. Benedict’s is currently deciding on a start date for the girls. The School runs on an 11-month academic year. Due to COVID-19, Summer Phase classes for the boys are scheduled to begin virtually on July 6. 

While the process has been relatively unorthodox compared to other schools, Fr. Ed said the decision to start a Prep Division for girls illustrates one of his favorite mottos: “Never do for kids what kids can do for themselves.” He added, “These kids have done incredibly well getting this project to this point. They identified a need in our community and found a logical way to address it. I’m proud of these kids.”