Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart Celebrates 50 Years of Educating Girls in Princeton
“We want a girl to know that there is nothing more powerful than her voice. Her voice matters,” says Patty L. Fagin, PhD, Head of School at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. “The Sacred Heart has a 200-year history of growing leaders. Mother Madeleine Sophie Barat started the school to educate girls to change the world, with women in the forefront, leading positive change.
“You don’t have to shy away from speaking what you believe to be the truth or what you believe to be important. Girls get their freedom in an all-women’s setting — that sense of ‘I have a voice, and it’s an important voice.’ We want the girls to reach the highest level of their potential and achievement.”
Educating girls to believe in their own voice and their ability to make a difference in the world has been the mission of the school since its founding in 1963. As one of 22 Sacred Heart schools in the United States, Stuart is part of a sisterhood of the Society of the Sacred Heart founded by Mother Madeleine Sophie Barat in France in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
As Stuart’s anniversary book Making History points out, Mother Barat believed “that the education of women would be a key means for rebuilding, renewing, and transforming society — a radical vision for the 1700s. Between 1802 and 1865, she formed and nurtured a community of religious women that would, by the time of her death, number over 3,000, and would be educating students across four continents.”
The Society of the Sacred Heart arrived in the United States in 1818, when Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne established the first school in St. Charles, Missouri — the first outside of France.
Mother Duchesne also worked with native Americans, and years later opened a school in Kansas for the Potawatomi Tribe children. Over time, many more schools were established in the U.S.
Fast forward to 1960, when a group of parents hoped to open a Sacred Heart School in Princeton. They traveled to Washington, D.C. to gain permission from the Mother Superior of the Washington, D.C. Vicariate of the Society of the Sacred Heart, which approved the establishment of a school in Princeton.
A “Founders Fund” was set up to purchase the land and finance the building of the school, which was named for Reverend Mother Janet Erskine Stuart, the sixth Superior General of the Society of the Sacred Heart. Her influence extends not only throughout the school, but throughout the world, notes Risa Engel, Stuart’s Director of Communications and project manager of Making History. “Her books, essays, and poetry continue to inspire spiritual growth and educational excellence.”
In 1961, the site of the school was selected, and the late Professor Jean Labatut, Director of Graduate Studies in Architecture at Princeton University, was chosen to design the building.
The land, 55 acres of a wooded area off The Great Road with large trees and boulders, was purchased, and Professor Labatut emphasized the outdoors in his design. “When there is freedom of space and nature, the design must meld into the space and nature of the surroundings,” he said.
Focus on Nature
“Professor Labatut wanted the school to be camouflaged within the landscape,” points out Ms. Engel. “The idea was to bring the outside indoors. There are floor-to-ceiling windows and a great sense of light. He also used hand-cut green bricks inside the building because they were individual like the girls in the school.”
In keeping with the focus on nature, large boulders have also been brought inside and incorporated into the design. Outdoors, Professor Labatut designed a Zen garden to be enjoyed by the nuns. Today, students also spend time there, and in addition, appreciate the natural beauty of Stuart’s setting by exploring its “Friendship Forest” trails in the woods and stopping by the nearby stream.
Stuart opened its doors in September of 1963 with 94 students from Preschool through 10th grade. Joan Kirby, RSCJ (Religious of the Sacred Heart), was the first Headmistress. The first graduating class in 1965 consisted of two students, Gertrude Baker and Sigrid Sittig. Today, student enrollment numbers 460, school extends through 12th grade, and boys are included in Preschool.
“Prominent in our expectations was a high level of academic excellence,” says Sister Kirby in Making History. In addition, she continues, “Our goal in sharing Sacred Heart tradition was to emphasize spirituality with our students. We were very interreligious, and actually, that was my first interfaith experience.”
Adds Dr. Fagin, “The Sacred Heart principles, which evolved into the Goals and Criteria, have remained constant. They are the foundation for everything we do.”
These Sacred Heart Goals include:
(1) A personal and active faith in God
(2) A deep respect for intellectual values
(3) A social awareness which impels to action
(4) The building of community as a Christian value
(5) Personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom
From its beginning, Stuart has welcomed students of all faiths, and the student body reflects that diversity. Half of the girls are Catholic, while the rest are of many other faiths, including other Christian denominations, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims, among others.
“Stuart has an open dialogue and welcomes families from diverse faiths,” points out Dr. Fagin. “The girls become very sensitized to different religions. In addition to monthly Mass, we hold ecumenical prayer services at different times during the school year.”
An atmosphere of spirituality is very important in the school, and the entire building is a sacred space, adds Risa Engel.
“The intellectual rigor and excellence were pivotal from the school’s inception,” notes Sister Kirby. “Our Sacred Heart religious community, however, was and remains key, generating a loving, warm, compatible atmosphere.”
The importance of this sense of community and the all-girls environment in instilling confidence, love of learning, and appreciation of the role of the intellect cannot be over-estimated.
As Sister Kirby says: “I think anyone who has experienced an all-women’s education realizes the importance of the freedom to develop as a woman, the leadership opportunities, the opportunity to excel, to stretch, and to be yourself.”
At Stuart, the older girls often interact with the Lower School, and leadership and core values are embedded into the curriculum in every classroom.
Stuart has fully embraced the world of technology, and the very youngest students are introduced to it in preschool. The school’s iPad program puts an iPad into the hands of every student in grades six through 12, and brings the technology to the lower grade classrooms.
Stuart’s focus on its STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) program is designed to engage girls even in the earliest years. Programs range from “Engineering Is Elementary” in the lower grades to programming video games in middle school to robotics and hands-on AP chemistry in the Upper School.
Opportunities for project-based learning extends outside the classroom to numerous clubs, competitions, speakers, and mentor programs.
Stuart believes that key skills, such as problem-solving, analytical thinking, collaboration, and tenacity are all developed in the study of science, technology, engineering, and math.
Teamwork plays a big part in Stuart’s curriculum and in its after school programs. Sparks, the school’s Robotics Team, went from zero experience to fourth place in the NTC NJ State championship — in just five months!
“Most Futuristic City”
The middle school Future City Team was awarded “Most Futuristic City” in state competition, and the middle school math team won an award for the best new team in a Math Counts competition.
Eighth grade math students created math video games for children ages three to eight, and two of the teams were selected as winners of the PBS Ready to Learn Category of the STEM Challenge. Stuart’s five students on the two teams were the only girls out of 28 middle and high school winners.
All of the other disciplines — English, history, social sciences, and languages — are emphasized as well. Spanish and French are included in the preschool level, and Latin is an elective for older girls. With 15 or fewer girls in a class, there is great opportunity for individual attention and focused learning.
Stuart’s strong visual and performing arts program begins in Preschool and extends through 12th grade. The arts are woven into the curriculum at every opportunity, and classes in music, drama, dance, and art encourage self-expression, self-confidence, and creative collaboration.
Students’ artwork is displayed in the school and at community locations; the school’s various choirs are award-winners in many venues, and the girls perform in five major drama and musical productions throughout the year.
Learning about other cultures is encouraged by exchange study programs with other Sacred Heart schools around the world, as well as with other options for international travel, study, and exchange. Currently, six students from China are enrolled at Stuart, and there are also students from many other international backgrounds.
Rock Climbing Wall
Stuart is also noted for its athletic opportunities. Nine sports, including soccer, field hockey, tennis, volleyball, basketball, lacrosse, golf, and cross country, are all available. The teams consistently play in the finals and achieve winning records. In addition, the school’s gym includes a rock climbing wall.
Community service is a major part of life at Stuart. “We know there is a real value in grounding girls in a life of faith, developing a sense of giving back and being an integral part of the community — all critical components of how we prepare young women,” points out Dr. Fagin.
Adds Sister Kirby: “The Goals and Criteria aim at a well-rounded graduate, someone whose whole person has developed in the Sacred Heart School, spiritually and in terms of social service, the awareness that in the world we are responsible for more than just ourselves.”
Upper School students are required to volunteer 50 hours helping others each year, and many average nearly 70 hours. Students at every grade level work with local agencies, such as Loaves and Fishes and Martin House, Habitat for Humanity, and other national and international programs.
Preschool students partner with second graders to make place mats for Meals on Wheels; third graders raise funds for Heifer International; middle school students have started a micro-finance club and a free trade organization; the senior social justice class project focuses on identifying and solving an “invisible” issue of suffering in the world (a problem in the world related to social justice that people are generally not aware of); and each summer, a group of Stuart faculty and students help repair homes in Appalachia.
Since February of 2001, Stuart girls, faculty, and staff and their families have been growing their hair in order to donate pony tails to Locks of Love, an organization that provides hair pieces to children with permanent hair loss.
Cor Unum Cross
In the aftermath of the events at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the girls sent more than 2000 letters, drawings, and candy bars to the emergency workers at the site. Art teacher Cynthia Dayton, trained in reflexology, spent time at the site massaging the feet of many of the workers, who were exhausted from their efforts.
When the final steel beams were extricated, a welder cut out a number of crosses and Stars of David from them, and one cross was sent to Stuart and Ms. Dayton in thanks. That cross was incorporated into the processional Cor Unum (One Heart) cross with the help of Princeton architect T. Jeffrey Clarke AIA.
Stuart has made an effort to diversify the student body, and has reached out to students in Trenton. The school offers enrichment and outreach programs to students within the area.
With the “Summer Stars” initiative, Trenton students attend Stuart for academic, cultural, and social enrichment. With a goal to teach the “Stars” that learning is an enjoyable and life-long endeavor, the program provides an entertaining classroom learning experience, supplemented with music lessons, field trips, guest performers, and more. Many “Stars” have become students at Stuart, and each year several of the Star alumnae return as volunteers or staff for the program.
In its desire to offer the benefits of a Sacred Heart education to those who might not be able to afford it, Stuart provides tuition aid for students demonstrating a financial need.
In keeping with its Social Awareness focus, Stuart honors an alumna with the Barbara Boggs Sigmund Alumna Award. The late Ms. Sigmund, former mayor of Princeton Borough, was a Sacred Heart alumna, and one of the earliest lay teachers at Stuart. The Barbara Boggs Sigmund Alumna Award was established in 1991 to honor her memory by highlighting the relevance of a Sacred Heart education in the contemporary world.
Stuart students, with a 100 percent college matriculation, regularly attend the nation’s finest colleges and universities. Close to home, six members of the 2013 graduating class were accepted at Princeton University.
The enduring value of a Stuart education has been exemplified and eloquently described by a former “Summer Stars” student and 2012 graduate. As Brenaea Flucas, one of five members of that class to attend Princeton University, has written, “My education taught me that women are strong and that women of faith are even stronger. As I continue my education at Princeton University, Stuart is the reason that I hope to major in Public Policy and Religion. I plan to be the senator who redefines America’s public education system while maintaining my Christian values. Contrary to popular belief, I do not think this goal is naive, too ambitious, or impossible to achieve; I think it’s just what a Stuart girl is equipped to do.”