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Marian Middle School Answers Question ‘What About the Girls?’

Posted on October 1, 2016, by Barbara Roche SL

Marian Middle School President Mary Elizabeth Grimes spoke about Marian’s mission and history at a recent St. Louis area LCWR gathering.
Photo by Sandy Ashby

LCWR, MMS Come Together for Girls

Aug. 27 the local St. Louis Area LCWR invited Marian Middle School President Mary Elizabeth Grimes to make a presentation at its annual workshop for women religious. The workshop theme, “Building the Beloved Community in the Age of Black Lives Matter,” allowed Grimes to talk about Marian’s history and its current mission in the context of addressing racial inequalities (in this case, unequal access to quality education). As one participant wrote, “I am so happy that I am from one of the religious communities that has helped to fund Marian Middle School since the start. … Your presentation clearly showed the success of your students and the dedication of your faculty and staff. I particularly like how you follow your students, supporting them even in high school and college.”

Classroom of young girls using computers with a teacher smiling at the camera.
Educating Girls for Life — Marian Middle School, now in its 17th year, continues to provide a top-notch education for girls from low-income families. Among Marian’s founders are Marian McAvoy, Nancy Wittwer and, shown above, Barbara Roche.
Photo courtesy of Marian Middle School

Back in 1999, in response to Nancy Wittwer’s question, “What about the girls?” seven communities of women religious and several laywomen in the St. Louis area joined forces to start Marian Middle School. The school’s goal is to break the cycle of poverty beginning with a challenging, top- notch middle-school education for girls from low-income families. On opening day in 2000, 14 courageous and dedicated young women began their Marian journeys.

On Aug. 3 this year, 75 students began the school’s 17th year. Marian students come from 25 different ZIP codes in St. Louis City and County and in Illinois. Almost all live in public school districts that have been designated as failing. Families desperately want a good education for their children and are so grateful to find Marian. There are even several families who ride three buses (each way) with their daughters to get them to and from Marian each day. Ninety-two percent of Marian families qualify for the free and reduced-cost lunch program, a national benchmark for poverty.

Over the past 17 years, the school has grown in many ways. Through partnerships with the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Science Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden, Marian students have expanded their study of science and experienced a variety of hands-on learning opportunities, including dissecting sharks and spending a week at the zoo. This year, Wednesday afternoons are set aside for Quest, bringing students together in small learning groups to identify and devise solutions to problems related to sustainability.

Marian also has learned through the years that “Educating Girls for Life” means more than an excellent middle-school education. Marian’s Graduate Support team follows students through high school, visiting each alum once a quarter to ensure that she stays on track. Senior year, another team member meets with students and their families to help them with the college application/enrollment process. Since many Marian graduates are the first in their families to go to college, they really appreciate this extra support. As a result of this long-term approach, Marian’s high school graduation rate is 95 percent; 14 Marian alums have graduated from college, and more than 50 alums now are enrolled in college.

Loretto has been with Marian every step of this amazing journey. Three SLs — Marian McAvoy, Barbara Roche and Nancy Wittwer — are among Marian’s founders. Marian McAvoy’s connection with the Hilton Foundation was critical in securing the first multi-year grant commitment for the school.

In 2006, when Marian Middle School had the chance to purchase the former Holy Family Parish School for a permanent home, Loretto provided a low-interest loan for the down payment. The loan was fully repaid in spring 2016.

There have been three Loretto Volunteers at Marian: Julia Peterson Hannan in 2001-2002, Kathleen Fox in 2012-2013 and Eleanor Humphrey in 2014-2015. Eleanor continues to work at Marian, as do I. Sharon Kassing was instrumental in connecting Marian with the education department at the St. Louis Zoo, and Martha Alderson, Rita Bruegenhagen and Mary Ann McGivern currently are volunteering at Marian.

Rita Bruegenhagen, shown above, volunteers at Marian Middle School with Martha Alderson and Mary Ann McGivern.
Photo courtesy of Marian Middle School

At the start of this year, students were asked to describe “Where I’m From” in poetry. The following poem truly captures who Marian students and their families are:

I am from
A mom who is strong and independent and successful.
Who taught me to do my best in life and be myself.
A mom who cooks and is a hard worker. Who taught me to be a hard worker and succeed in my goals in life.
I am from
A Mexican mom who walked and traveled here from Mexico to St. Louis to have a better life and she never gave up and her dream came true.
And now I tell myself that if my mom dreams came true by working hard then my dreams can come true by working hard.


Barbara Roche SL

Barbara, a Sister of Loretto, is academic associate at Marian Middle School in St. Louis. Prior to this, she served as president of Nerinx Hall High School for 27 years and advocated for a variety of social justice issues. Barbara enjoys cooking, gardening and reading mysteries.
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Loretto welcomes you

Learn more or plan a visit to the Motherhouse!