Students from Jean Forest Leadership Academy help out at Hope Mission.

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Students from Jean Forest Leadership Academy help out at Hope Mission.

November 3, 2014
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Kalyna Babiuk loves the opportunities she finds at the Jean Forest Leadership Academy that she might not otherwise get at a co-ed high school.

The opportunities to develop her leadership abilities, mentor others and volunteer could pay off, said Kalyna, a Grade 11 student, when the students apply for university or enter the workforce.

"I feel more comfortable answering questions, and being myself, expressing myself, without boys around," said Kalyna.

"We're all kind of like a family here. It's really open and accepting, and I think in a bigger setting, in a big high school, people might feel uncomfortable to be themselves. Here, everyone is like a sister."

Edmonton's all-girls' school opened in 2005 and now resides on the fourth floor of St. Joseph's High School, 10830-109 St. The first graduating class had six girls. There are now 57 girls in the academy.

The mission of the academy is "to provide the finest Christ-centred learning environment which inspires young women to develop spirit, leadership, intellect, self-discovery and service."

The program was named after Jean Forest who, for decades, was a major force in the Edmonton community and Church, serving as a Catholic school trustee, chancellor of the University of Alberta and member of the Canadian Senate, as well as in numerous other capacities. Born in Minitonas, Man., she and her husband Rocky moved to Alberta in 1947.

Jean Forest Academy graduate Stephanie Beaver carries the cross for Mass during her time at the all-girls school.

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Jean Forest Academy graduate Stephanie Beaver carries the cross for Mass during her time at the all-girls school.

Claudine Fuerderer is the department head at the Jean Forest Academy. Girls attending an all-girls' setting are more likely to go on to post-secondary studies and enter into male-dominated areas, she said.

Recent graduates have gone on to such fields as engineering and mechanics.

"There is still this misconception that there is equality amongst men and women in education, and that is not true," said Fuerderer.

"People say this is 2014, and ask if this is even needed anymore? There are some naysayers about that, but people who see our program in action and see the development of our girls will realize the importance of it."

While the girls' leadership academy has been around for 10 years, Edmonton Catholic Schools also tried an all-boys' school. The school still runs a Grade 5 and 6 program at St. James School, but it will be cancelled next year due to low enrollment.

Fuerderer said the current curriculum in Alberta schools is male-driven, so there is no need for an all-boys' program.

Girls at the academy take the core subjects (English, math, social studies and science) with other girls, but they take option subjects with boys in St. Joseph's High.

CALMER ENVIRONMENT

Erika Buhler, a Grade 11 student, said taking core subjects without the boys around allows for a calmer learning environment that allows them to be more expressive.

"We, as girls, will try a little harder when it comes to impressing others. Since there is really no one to impress here because we're all really good friends, it's less of a burden," said Erika.

Studies also indicate that in an all-girls' setting, the girls are more likely to excel in math and science courses, and have less stereotyped views of men's versus women's occupations.

Kelli Visca-Vico, another Grade 11 student, said many of the girls choose options that are typically for boys, such as welding and construction.

Kelli was shy growing up, and thought she might feel more comfortable in all-girls setting.

TOTAL ACCEPTANCE

"Everyone is nice here and very accepting. In other high schools, you might have a division between Grade 10, 11 and 12. Here, we are all one academy and we all hang out together," she said.

Kalyna Babiuk

Kalyna Babiuk

Unlike other high schools, the students at the girls' academy are from throughout Edmonton. The distance and travel time is a drawback for some girls, Kelli said. Still, she recommends the school to her younger friends and her sister's friends.

"A lot of girls think they have something to prove, and they have to look good for the boys. Here, we can just be ourselves, ask questions, and learn the way we need to learn," Kelli said.

By identifying female roles in society and understanding women's issues in learning, working and living fully, the Jean Forest Leadership Academy empowers young women to achieve and grow spiritually by developing their talents.

One of the school's biggest success stories is Stephanie Beaver who graduated from the three-year program in just two years.

Beaver was in Grade 10 in the 2010-11 school year, and wishes that she'd known about the school earlier. She finished not only her Grade 10 classes in one year, but many of her Grade 11 classes too.

Mikaela Wrobel

Mikaela Wrobel

The next year she completed her required courses to graduate.

The University of Alberta, in an unprecedented move, changed its entrance requirements to accommodate her.

Before Beaver, all students had to be 18, but she enrolled in the university at age 16, studying elementary education and minoring in French. Taking spring and summer sessions will allow her to graduate with her university degree in three years – another early finish.

Beaver said the teachers at Jean Forest were positive role models. They not only told students how to behave, but also showed them how through their actions.

Through the school, she was able to take part in a variety of community volunteering activities.

"Especially in junior high school, service to the community became really important to me. I was doing most of it outside of school, and after school. When I heard about Jean Forest, I thought wouldn't it be great if I make service and leadership part of my schooling?" said Beaver.

Erika Buhler

Erika Buhler

The students do service projects through their leadership classes. This might involve helping with Big Brothers Big Sisters or the YWCA's Rose Campaign, a national advocacy program to end violence against women and girls.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

Beaver described the academy as the best of both worlds – being only with other girls for classes but still with opportunities to socialize with the boys at St. Joseph's.

Mikaela Wrobel said she's heard a few disparaging comments about the all-girls' school, and people assuming it is "anti-boys."

"I've heard outside criticisms that we won't be able to socialize with boys at all when we get out, but that's not true at all," Mikaela countered.

EASY TO GET ALONG

"It's a really good environment to have and it's easy to get along. We all seem to have the same basic understanding, all being girls, and we have the same basic worldview of a lot of things."

Not having the boys around is less distracting for Mikaela and her classmates.

"Sometimes if you have boys in a class, you have to be worried about what the boys are thinking. It's easier to speak your mind when you feel comfortable around everyone," she said.