Preparing for the Girls

In a very real sense, the door closed on the last all-male class with the retirement of J.B. Murphy, who left after 50 years of service. The last all-male student body honored him at the Awards Assembly in May 1989 by leaping to their feet for a standing ovation after Fr. Prietto introduced him. At the end of his speech he lifted his arm and shouted: “Go SI! Go coed!” His legacy continued both through his son, Chuck Murphy ’61, who represented SI at the archdiocesan coed discussion meetings, and through his grandchildren who attended SI — Matt ’87 and Marielle ’93, a member of the first coed class.

The girls arrived (175 in a class of 375 in a student body of 1225) for their frosh orientation August 22, 1989. Accompanying them were TV reporters and cameras to cover the historic event. “As long as I live, I shall never forget watching the Class of 1993 file into Orradre Chapel the next morning,” said Prietto. “Steve Lovette was standing next to me, and I told him: ‘Doctor, I can’t believe my eyes. They’re actually here.’ Then I thought about all the work that lay ahead of us and added, ‘I sure wish it were four years from now.’”

To prepare for that first class, Prietto had formed a Task Force among the faculty and administrators that included Phyllis Molinelli, the chair of the counseling department. The group met for the first time on April 21, 1988, and debated issues big and small, from dress code to off-campus lunch privileges. The school decided not to require uniforms for either boys or girls but did revoke off-campus lunch privileges. “The boys blamed the girls for the rule changes,” said Molinelli. “They were furious about losing their off-campus privileges and about having to wear, and tuck in, shirts with collars. And the girls tested every rule there was. Years later, we had to go to polo shirts for both boys and girls.”

Molinelli added that “there was a little fear before the girls came, but when they finally arrived, the tension was gone. Teachers who had never taught girls realized that it wasn’t that much different from teaching boys.”

The school also looked to hire women as administrators, teachers and coaches. In the years leading up to and immediately following the move to coeducation, the school gave leadership roles to the following women: Donna Ravetti Murphy (assistant admissions director and later assistant dean and activities coordinator), Teresa Mullin Garrett (associate athletic director), Kathleen Purcell (head of the campus ministry team), Karen Cota (associate dean) and Kate Kelly Kodros (assistant principal for academics). “If women were truly to be part of the formerly all-male bastion, they had to have positions of real power and authority,” wrote Prietto.

Many others at SI proved instrumental to the success of coeducation among the faculty, counselors and staff. In addition, the school brought in outside experts to help prepare the faculty for the girls. In the spring of 1989 three women spoke to the faculty including Phyllis Molinelli’s daughter Cathy Molinelli (then dean of students at Notre Dame High School in Southern California); Mary Lamia, a clinical psychologist; and Rita Dollard O’Malley, the former director of campus ministry at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. O’Malley had helped St. Ignatius in Chicago go coed in the early 1980s, and she answered questions from a wary faculty. “I thought it was an engaging dialogue,” said O’Malley. “They asked serious questions and were honest about their concerns. They wondered if girls’ needs were different from boys’ needs. They showed a great deal of respect and a little healthy fear. They wanted the school to become coed the right way. They did ask some unrealistic questions, such as ‘Am I going to be as effective a teacher of girls as I am with boys?’”

O’Malley was among seven women hired in 1989 to teach at SI, extending the total number of female faculty from 11 to 18. They now constituted nearly a quarter of the faculty, and that figure, over the next few years, would almost double. (Currently, SI employs 66 men and 55 women who work directly with students, including faculty, counselors, administrators and librarians, not counting off-campus coaches.) O’Malley recalls the “energy and investment put into making the freshman class feel welcome. It was a healthy transition despite the fact that these freshman girls had no older girls to serve as mentors.” She recalls the excitement of the early days. “We all had a sense that we were entering into a new era. The students had a great deal of confidence about being pioneers. They knew they were special, and we showed them a great deal of care and concern with focus groups for the girls and boys to talk about how they felt being in this new environment.”

Not everyone was happy with the change, including some of the older boys who felt that the focus had shifted from the upperclassmen to the freshmen. A handful of students reacted badly, vandalizing one female teacher’s classroom while she was away at the faculty retreat and writing “we don’t want women” on papers in her file cabinet.

To aid in their transition to SI, the girls were divided into 10 support groups, each led by a female faculty member. Erika Drous ’93, a member of that first coed class, praised her group’s leader, Donna Murphy “who did a great job making sure the girls felt welcomed.” (Drous, by the way, made SI history by being the first girl to be handed a detention slip for the offense of not having her book in English class. She never served detention, however, as that infraction wasn’t one punishable by detention.) Drous enjoyed the fact that her class was the only coed one in the school. “Everyone wanted to accommodate us and attend to our needs.”

Molinelli and others felt, however, that SI’s eagerness to accommodate the girls was a mistake. “From the moment they walked through the doors, we treated those girls as if they were seniors. We tried to be inclusive, but I think we gave them too much too soon. Still, I think the transition was a success. All the fears proved false — that girls would prove a distraction or that athletic participation would decrease. The opposite proved true. The SAT scores, AP results and GPAs all rose thanks to coeducation and our teams continued to excel.”

Teresa Mullin Garrett, who served as assistant (and then associate) athletic director, helped the first girls’ teams get started. The freshmen girls competed on the JV level in their first year and on the varsity as sophomores in volleyball, cross country, tennis, basketball, soccer, softball and track. In later years would they compete in swimming, field hockey, lacrosse, crew, golf, water polo and diving.

O’Malley left the faculty after two years and returned eight years later to direct the Adult Ministry Program. “When I returned, no one was talking about coeducation. That was a sign of progress. Instead of talking about it, we were doing it.” Mario Prietto knew that the school had made the right decision. “I myself am a ’62 graduate of [the all-male] Loyola High School in Los Angeles. I cherish the time I had there and wouldn’t change it for the world. But I am convinced more than ever of the rightness of our decision.” SI went coed, in part, because of demographic reasons. “But … it is far better to go coed for the best reason. That is, because it is the right thing to do. We claim that we are in the business of educating leaders for the future, which has to include the other half of the human race.”

Molinelli has also seen the fruits of coeducation: “Some people worried that a coed SI would never have the camaraderie it enjoyed as an all-male institution. I see a different kind of camaraderie. They keep in touch all the time, and close friends remain close. Some of the best friendships are between men and women. The men have learned to look at women differently, and they are called to task when they don’t.”

One symbol of SI’s successful transition to coeducation can be found in the ranks of the student body officers for the 1996–1997 school year. They included Laura Jones as student body president, Katie Watson as vice president, Sally Prowitt as treasurer, Emily Dunn as sergeant-at-arms and Rowena Ocampo as secretary, forming the first all-female collection of student body officers in the school’s history.