50 Years of Co-education on the Hilltop

By Katy Ritz

Looking around the Hilltop, it is hard to believe that Hackley started as an all-boys seven-day boarding school. Today, Varsity Girls Softball is playing on the Field next to the Varsity Boys Baseball team; the Upper School Spring musical, Into the Woods, has both male and female leads; and lunch on Akin Common includes male and female students playing frisbee together. The classrooms consist of an equal number of boys and girls participating in science, math, english, debate, visual arts, drama, athletics, and so much more. Hackley has seen many changes over the 122-year history of the School, and co-educational is one of its most transformative. This year marks the 50-year anniversary of co-educational on the Hilltop, and Hackley girls past and present have certainly carved out a space for themselves as they continue to pave a path for future Hackley girls.
Hackley’s founding is well documented, through the generosity of Mrs. Frances Hackley, who, in partnership with leading Unitarians, created a non-sectarian boys school. The year was 1899. The school welcomed boys of diverse religious, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. It would be nearly 70 years before girls entered the classrooms.

According to Walter Schneller, former faculty member and author of Where the Seasons Tell Their Story, in 1968, Headmaster Kenneth MacArthur suggested at his first Board meeting that a new Lower School be created, that Hackley essentially become a day school with a handful of boarders, and that it should become co-educational. On July 28, 1968, the Board approved a plan to reduce boarding and build a co-educational Lower School, with the idea that the entire school would become co-educational over a period of time.

Helen Erickson was one of the few female teachers at Hackley in the early 70s. “It is probably true that initially girls were accepted for economic reasons. During the early 70s, a significant number of private schools in Westchester were forced to close. Hackley may well have survived because of the girls.”

When girls first came to Hackley, very little was changed in order to accommodate them – a boy’s bathroom (with urinals intact) was painted pink and a “Girls” sign was posted on the door. Few, if any, changes were made to the daily operations or educational philosophy of the school. According to Carol Gibbon, who arrived at Hackley just as they admitted the girls, “the young women in the Upper School were exceptionally smart, motivated, and could certainly hold their own among the boys.” Mrs. Gibbon was one of the only female teachers in the English Department in the early 70s.

Lori Levine Ordover ’73 was one of the first girls on the Hilltop and the first to register at Hackley. She arrived in the fall of 1970 as a tenth grader and during her junior year was the first recipient of the Hackley Bowl, an award created for an outstanding female student. For Lori, “it wasn’t about being the best woman academic, it was an all-around award, and it made me feel wonderful.” She described Hackley as being very welcoming. “It was very organic, it was really inclusive. Doors were open if you wanted to participate. My focus was on academics and I wasn’t really focused on whether Hackley was a boys’ club. The biggest challenge was what were they going to do about sports – that wasn’t really thought out and there was really nothing for us to do. By law, they were required to teach the girls P.E., so they made us coach a boys team.”

Lori credits Hackley for setting her up for a successful career. “It was easy to be part of the Hackley community, even though I was just one of 15 girls on the As a boys school, it was common for young men to play female parts in the drama productions – today it is common to see co-educational ensembles. Hilltop. So moving forward in my life, I thought nothing of being in a situation where there were less women.”

In 1971-72, the Kathleen Allen Lower School opened as co-educational with Kindergarten through fifth grade. Helen Erickson reflects, “I began teaching Lower School music at Hackley just one year after it went co-educational. Now that I look back on those days, I realize that Hackley did not go co-educational all at once, but rather gradually and over a period of time. In the beginning, Hackley’s structure and underlying assumptions accommodated boys better than girls. I mean that – with the best of intentions – the assumption was that you just added girls to the school population – no accommodation needed because the girls would adapt. That girls might have different learning and social styles went unrecognized. A summer workshop with Peggy McIntosh at Wellesley really helped me to see through these assumptions and recognize how they impacted the classroom.”

As an English teacher, Carol Gibbon had a similar experience to Helen Erickson. “Arthur Naething handed me the curriculum that I was expected to teach. I didn’t make any changes until a few years later,” recalled Carol. “My classes were all boys and I only taught one novel written by a woman, and it was George Eliot, how ironic! I introduced books by women and about women because I was interested in them, not because I was making a conscious decision to infuse the curriculum with women authors.” By the time that first kindergarten class cycled through to the Upper School, in the early 1980’s, Hackley’s curriculum, athletics, and student activities had shifted to truly incorporate girls on the Hilltop.

In the late 70s and early 80s an effort to raise the academic standards and position Hackley as a sought-after school for talented boys and girls became a priority. Hackley was able to attract girls who not only excelled academically, but as leaders who were well-rounded, who were good at sports, who were interested in the arts, and who would challenge the traditionally male school to find their place.

According to the January 1992 issue of the Dial, “While men also play a vital role in the Hackley community, it is important to realize that Hackley, a school that has been co-educational for only twenty years, has finally come around and accepted the partnership that must exist between men and women if we are to advance our place in society. So, the next time you walk into a meeting of almost any club and you see a woman calling things to order, stop and realize that Hackley is more like the real world than you thought it was.” – Fabulous Females Take Hackley By Storm.

In 1994, Hackley achieved a gender balance (45 boys and 44 girls) in the graduating class and has sustained close to gender parity since. Today, 47% of enrolled students are girls. Melissa Stanek ’90, P’21, P’23, P’30 reflects on her time as a student, teacher, and current parent at Hackley. “When I think about my academic experience at Hackley, I really do not feel that I was ever respected less or treated any differently than the boys...I never felt limited, restricted, belittled. I never felt my voice wasn’t heard academically. I felt the greatest difference was in athletics, and sometimes it was a glaring difference.”

As a student, she describes most girls’ sports as having coaches who had little to no experience in the sport they were coaching, being relegated to far away fields or playing soccer on the baseball field, inadequate locker space, and more. When she returned to teach History in 2003, “All these women were in coaching roles who played their sport at the collegiate level and could model for the girls.” And today, she states, “It is a world of difference in terms of equitability, mutual admiration, and respect, but there are still bumps in the road, and we need to use our voices. I hate the fact that in middle school, girls have to prove they are strong enough to wrestle but boys don’t. There are still these double standards that are embedded in the athletic program.”

In just 50 years of co-educational, it is clear that girls are thriving on the Hilltop. Girls are inducted into the Cum Laude Society, female faculty teach math and science, girls athletic teams are coached by women, and many departments and divisions are led by women. Hackley expects the same success for every student. Hackley is a co-educational independent school that challenges students to grow in character, scholarship, and accomplishment.

Hackley’s first female students were pioneers, leaders, and powerhouses on the Hilltop, and are now doing amazing things in the world as ambassadors, artists, CEOs, journalists, scientists, firefighters, engineers, and more. During their time on the Hilltop, the first female students gained the necessary tools, opportunities, and confidence to go out in the world and aim high— which has paved the way for future female students.