Five Questions With: Gigi DiBello

Head of Sophia Academy talks about the small, independent middle school for girls from low income homes. More

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Five Questions With: Gigi DiBello

"It is hard to imagine a student leaving Sophia Academy without changing their world view in a significant way. "
Posted 7/5/13

Since 2007, Gigi DiBello has been the head of Sophia Academy, a small, independent middle school for girls from low income homes. The school recently announced that it will be relocating back to the Elmwood avenue neighborhood, where it began 12 years ago. Not only is the new location nearer to the school’s students, families and alumnae, but it also hopes to offer programs and activities to other middle school age girls in the area.

DiBello has more than 25 years of experience in education. She holds a bachelor of arts in psychology from Ohio Wesleyan University in psychology and a masters in education from Northeastern University. Previously, she helped launch the Highlander Charter School where she was a founding faculty member and then the middle school director.

PBN: How has Sophia Academy designed its curriculum to meet the needs of low-income, middle-school-aged girls?

DIBELLO: Sophia’s founder, Sr. Mary Reilly, grew up in South Providence and was also the founder of Dorcas Place, an adult literacy and learning center. There she spent 19 years assisting low-income adults reach their full potential through literacy, employment, advocacy and community involvement. Struck by the “absence of dreams” for many of the women she served, as well as their desire for a better life for their children, she realized that in order for adult women to have hopes and dreams, they needed to envision them as girls. In 2000, she assembled a group of women, later known as the Sisters Collaborative, with a vision: to open a non-denominational school that would celebrate girls through education with a focus on social justice. Unlike other single gender schools, this middle school would directly address the obstacles that prevent girls, especially those from low income homes, to thrive and provide them with the tools – academic, social and cultural – they need to alter their futures. After 11 successful years, Sophia Academy remains the only single gender middle school in Providence serving low income girls.

Our curriculum, which aligns with statewide standards, also provides connections to the students’ lives through language arts, math, science, and social studies. With support from their families, Sophia students set and work towards lifelong goals that will lead to more economically stable lives as adults. Our high school graduation rate and current NECAP scores demonstrate the impact of a Sophia education. In June 2013, 100 percent of Sophia Academy’s Class of 2009 graduated from high school in four years. All of our graduating eighth grade students met or exceeded the reading standard; 90 percent met or exceeded the writing standard; 64 percent of our students overall met or exceeded the math standard as measured on the NECAP tests. Sophia Academy is working with the Association of Independent Schools of New England (AISNE) with a goal of full accreditation by 2015.

PBN: How are Sophia Academy students selected for enrollment?

DIBELLO: Sophia Academy students are selected for enrollment based on three main factors: gender, Providence residency at the time of admissions, and socioeconomic class (families must qualify for free or reduced lunch at the time of admittance and must be able to pay the family portion of tuition between $350-$1,000/year). Our admissions committee also reviews student grades, standardized test scores, references and any other relevant educational information provided (i.e. Individualized Education Plans for students with documented learning disabilities). Applicants and an adult family member are asked to respond in writing to a series of questions related to the student’s educational goals and our school mission. Also, both are required to attend an information session regarding our school and its’ practices. Each student has the opportunity to attend a day-long visit to better understand our educational philosophy. We do not have an academic bar for admissions. In fact, normally at least one third of our students come to us below or significantly below grade level in one or more core subjects (math, reading or writing). Our current recruitment efforts are minimal. Students come to us largely by word of mouth – we send letters to all the principals at the public elementary and charter schools in Providence and rely on current families and alumnae, board members, faculty and community partners to spread the word. We have a small wait list.

PBN: What kind of programs would Sophia Academy offer to non-students in its new location? What benefit do you foresee this having on the school and community?

DIBELLO: As a small, independent school we serve 60 middle school girls a year. This summer, in addition to the relationships we already have with community partners like Save the Bay, to provide summer learning opportunities for our current students and alumnae, Sophia is partnering for the first time with the YWCA to offer on-site summer programming to current students and other middle school girls. The hands-on camp named Rosie’s Girls, after Rosie the Riveter, focuses on women in the trades and is funded by a grant from the United Way. Once in our new location, Sophia plans to extend its resources to more girls through similar after-school and summer programming. It is also our goal to explore other partnerships with neighboring organizations that may provide opportunities for people to utilize our newly renovated facility in ways that are consistent with our mission. The Sophia community is enhanced by deeper ties to the neighboring community in many ways. We are poised to take advantage of all that Elmwood has to offer from the Roger Williams Park Zoo to Dorcas International Institute to the Paul Cuffee High School and the Highlander Charter School we are eager to explore the resources close by. Additionally, families pay between $350-$1,000/year for their tuition contribution which only accounts for three percent of Sophia’s annual budget. It is our hope that after-school and summer programming and new collaborations may offer Sophia opportunities for additional income beyond tuition and donations.

PBN: Do you think gender studies in middle-school-aged girls changes their worldview in any significant way?

DIBELLO: It is hard to imagine a student leaving Sophia Academy without changing their world view in a significant way. From attending monthly community meetings lead by students and faculty on issues that directly relate to women, to sophisticated social movement projects in seventh grade comparing modern day social movements to the women’s suffrage movement, to the eighth grade seminar on justice and gender, which includes trips to the United Nations, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., our students are asked to expand their thinking on a regular basis. While we don’t use the words “gender studies” per se, we do teach our students to view the world through a gender lens in order to more fully understand various factors at play, just as we ask them to consider race, class and other issues as they explore complex topics in all their subject areas. Ultimately, the goal is for our graduates to function in the world free from any sexist limitations placed on them and become “confident and compassionate young women prepared to meet the challenges of their world.”

The question is best answered by a Sophia student (Kimani Perry, Class of 2013) who delivered a speech in front of 200-plus people at the annual Providence Rotary Luncheon for Sophia Academy and San Miguel School in December 2012 – an excerpt of her speech is included below:

Sophia is the reason why I am the girl I am today. During my four years at Sophia I have been challenged and presented with new experiences. At most other schools, I would not have had the opportunities and the challenges that I have had at Sophia such as climbing a mountain, going to the United Nations, or to the Huffington Post.

When I started my eighth grade year, I climbed a mountain with my whole class. The climb was refreshing, but really hard. I had to do something that my body was not prepared for. On my never ending climb I realized something about myself: I underestimate myself. I underestimated myself because I grew up in a world of ‘you can’ts.’ However, the faculty and staff at Sophia don’t underestimate me. They recognize that I can go further than I ever thought I could. On that mountain, in the midst of all the difficulty, I learned that I am someone who can overcome obstacles, push her own limits, and achieve new heights on the mountain and in the classroom. I underestimated myself, because for a long time I didn’t see in myself what the faculty and staff at Sophia see in me. This really showed me that Sophia really reflects the wisdom in every girl.

PBN: Sophia Academy began 12 years ago in the Elmwood Avenue neighborhood. Why will it move back?

DIBELLO:It is true that many of our current students and alumnae live near the new facility, but we are excited to move into the Elmwood neighborhood for other reasons as well – not the least of which is for easy access to the plethora of resources and community partnerships it offers.

We reluctantly moved from our first home centrally located on Broad Street in South Providence to the North End in 2003 because we found a location, which offered a generous amount of space, at a low cost. Since then, our institutional needs have grown as we have further developed our education program to include outdoor programing, and a need for more discrete spaces, among other things. We are eager to return to the Elmwood area because of its central location to our students, alumnae, and community partners. Most importantly, we felt we could successfully conduct a 1.5M capital campaign to purchase the small campus at 582 Elmwood Avenue allowing Sophia Academy to set down permanent roots as a vital educational resource for girls and woman.

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