The words come easily to Sharon Olson when asked to describe the namesake of the school where she has taught for 30 years.
“She loved raising people up,” Ms. Olson says of Ella P. Stewart, one of the first African-American women pharmacists in the country and the first in northwest Ohio. “She loved lifting people up and she loved the kids here at her school.”
Although Mrs. Stewart passed away in 1987, her spirit is alive and well at the Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls, the first single-gender public school in the state of Ohio when it was switched from a regular elementary school in 2003.
Principal Teresa Quinn beamed when listening to Ms. Olson describe the school’s namesake because the idea of lifting up the girls in her care is paramount to her educational philosophy.
“We’re all about respect, positivity and building their self-esteem,” Ms. Quinn says. “We tell them, ‘walk like you have an invisible crown on.’”
Ms. Quinn says the staff at the school, 707 Avondale Ave., has embraced the single-gender concept, participating in book studies and professional development to teach girls to enhance their leadership skills rather than engage in negative behavior.
Her philosophy is evident in the school motto ("Where Girls of Integrity become Ladies of Prestige") and in the school's mission statement: "We, the staff of Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls, value professional integrity, positive attitudes, open communication, collaboration and high academic standards for ourselves and our students."
The commitment to turning the girls into strong leaders is reinforced throughout the school, from having a museum dedicated to Ella P. Stewart that shows off the many treasures she amassed when traveling overseas as an ambassador, to having each corridor and other locations named for famous women, including current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
When Shannon Tisdale joined the staff four years ago as the school’s counselor, she was determined to focus on the positive rather than the negative.
“I want them to do the positive thing. Positive behavior can be taught. Let that be the norm,” she said.
Or, as third grader Kailah McGee puts it, “We build each other up but we never tear each other down.”
Fourth grader Airlia Parrish adds, “We treat each other like sisters.”
From developing a close-knit staff to resolving conflict, the emphasis is definitely on being a family, Ms. Quinn says.
And that means, say Ms. Quinn and Ms. Tisdale, an emphasis is put on resolving conflict in a constructive way.
“We want teachers to work it out in their classrooms,” Ms. Quinn says. “We talk things through with the students and the teachers and the staff and we get the parents involved.”
The questions that are asked include, ‘How do we move forward? How can we be cordial and work together?”
That message is an essential part of making the Stewart girls college and career ready, Ms. Tisdale says, because they will encounter all kinds of people at a university and in the work force.
“We have a very positive, quiet and safe atmosphere here,” Ms. Quinn says.
Ask students what they like best about attending Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls, and it’s a long list they rattle off.
“I like all the activities they have,” says Jakya Warren, who has been at the school since kindergarten and who is graduating from the sixth grade this year. (The school now goes from K to 6th grade because of the establishment this year of the Jones Leadership Academy, which offers a take on single-gender education for grades 7-9. Plans call for the school to eventually be 7th through 12th grades).
Jakya talks of the Kids Unlimited afterschool program, during which girls first do their homework and then eat and learn new subjects. And there was the fashion show held during a recent open house and the annual spelling bee that she won.
“My favorite subject is math,” she says, with plans to attend Jones in the fall and to eventually become a nurse like her mother.
“I want to follow in my mother’s footsteps,” she reveals.
Airlia, the fourth grader who has been at the school since first grade, says she also likes Kids Unlimited as well as the chance to be part of Girl Scouts and Young Women of Excellence.
She loves reading, so a favorite memory was when parents were invited to lunch and then were able to tour the Book Fair with their children.
“I want to do what my mom does,” she says, adding that her mom is a store manager.
Kailah, the third grader, was new to Stewart this year after attending a charter school.
“The reason I like it is we do different things than the other academies,” she states.
Her eyes lit up when talking about plans for an upcoming day.
“Next week, we’re going to have a whole entire day about science,” she says.
She talks animatedly about a recent project in which the class raised painted lady butterflies.
“I got to release them,” Kailah remembers. When prompted by Ms. Quinn, she volunteers that these butterflies "can scare away their predators with their wing colors. Their wings are so fragile that they can snap and break.”
The fragility of the spirit was a topic of discussion during a tea held on the evening of May 20, when the school's 28 sixth graders were allowed to bring two guests and were feted for their accomplishments.
The invites for the event read: Just as a porcelain tea cup is beautiful, unique, delicate yet strong, so are our young ladies. We honor their move from Girls of Integrity to Young Ladies of Prestige."
Jakya says, “It was a nice event and it was a way for everyone to say goodbye.”
The tea cup, she learned, is like the girls: beautiful, royal, different and fragile.
“The message is that you don’t have to try so hard to be a different person. You can be yourself," Jakya recounts.
Ms. Quinn and Ms. Tisdale know their biggest challenge is combatting the conflicting messages that the girls get from the media and when they’re away from the school.
The girls are required to adhere to a strict uniform code while in school and lessons about dress stress presenting themselves correctly in all situations.
“We try to show them that when they go out, ‘this is how a successful woman acts and dresses,’ Ms. Quinn says. “We are different by design.’
A major focus for the upcoming school year will be integrating data into instruction so the school can reach the coveted excellence mark in academics.
"Our reading strength has always been strong but there's a stigma that girls can't do math. We're going to change that," says Juanetia Williams, the inclusion specialist at the school. "We can grow stronger."
Or, as the school creed says, "We are exceptional. We are extraordinary. We make no excuses. We never fail because we never give up! We believe in ourselves. We believe in each other. We believe success is our only option! We are the girls of Ella P. Stewart Academy!"
The school is currently enrolling students in grades kindergarten through sixth grade for the 2015-2016 school year. Interested parents or guardians should call the school at 419-671-5350.
Posted on May 28, 2015