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15 Girls, 16 Weeks, 1 Coast, A Lot of Muddy Boots

Inside an historic yellow home set back from the road in Freeport, Maine, 15 teenage girls introduce themselves and collectively start to snap their fingers, part in appreciation and part in welcome. The energy is contagious.

"You will know how to snap [your fingers] once you leave here," one girl warns with a smile.

At Coastal Studies for Girls (CSG), there is neither angst nor the bored stares one might expect from teenagers. Instead, these girls are engaged, mature, and talkative, and they care about receiving the best education possible. In fact, the latter is what brought these sophomore girls from around the country to attend the nation's first-ever residential science and leadership semester school for girls. Incorporated in 2005, the 16-week, tuition-based program has become the "life's work" of Edith Aronson, Ed.M.'97.

"They are wonderful kids and have a spark because they took the leap to come here," Aronson says, noting that many of the 15 students discovered the school on their own. "They have this need for self-discovery, and we fuel that fire. We give them a set of tools that they can take back to their own schools and their own lives."

Aronson's involvement with the school began one summer evening around a campfire as she listened to fellow educators dream about what a school could be. It was there that Pam Erickson spoke passionately about a school focused on science and leadership for high school girls. Erickson, who would go on to start CSG and currently serves as its executive director, hoped to address the plentiful research that documents how teenage girls' interest in science and math drops off around sophomore year.

Aronson perked up with interest.

"Pam's vision was so compelling. I was hooked," she says.

Still, the former public middle school teacher was hesitant to take on the initial role of founding board chair. Despite coming from a family of philanthropists, it was a huge shift in gears.

"It's been great, but the role is not the role of the educator," she says. "I love teaching. I love working with kids. I love working with other teachers. I have to work pretty hard to stay out of classrooms."

The CSG classroom experience is unique. The Coastal Marine Ecosystems course, for example, relies heavily on using the neighboring ocean and surrounding wild. There are rigorous courses in math, English, foreign language, and history as well. The girls also take a leadership adventure course, designed to cultivate a deeper connection between themselves, others, and the natural world in order to explore their roles in leading change to create a more economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable future.

"If I had done this when I was 15, I would've had 30 more years of the kind of passion, success, and gratitude that I feel now," says Aronson. "I tell the girls often how they are getting a head start on what a lot of women struggle to find much later in life."

The all-girls environment adds a special element to their learning. The girls live, sleep, and attend classes together within the same house, where they learn to support one another. Many of the students cite fewer distractions in the all-girl environment.

"It's nice to get the all-girl school where no one judges me," says Chiara, a student from Ouray, Colo.

All girls from across the country are invited to apply for the fall or spring semester of their sophomore year, and the school includes students from public and independent schools, as well as those who are homeschooled. Now with 83 alums in the world, the members of the first cohort are nearing the end of their freshman years in college. And Aronson's work has evolved, now focused on transitioning the school from startup to mature nonprofit. But her eye remains on the real prize.

"From an educator's perspective, every kid in the country deserves an experience like this one," she says. "Boys and girls; blacks, whites, and everything in between; wealthy and poor. All kids deserve an educational experience that proves to them that they are valued in the world and that, collectively, they have the passion, creativity, and responsibility to make positive change in the world."



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