Thirtieth Anniversary of the Introduction of Coeducation at Rivers

2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of coeducation at Rivers. The school has changed in myriad ways since the fall of 1989, and evidence of the changes can be seen in both the school’s facilities and program. The transition to coeducation required a reassessment of the curriculum and programs, the introduction of new sports and extracurricular activities, the hiring of new faculty, and a reconfiguring and expansion of facilities. Statistics for the current school year provide a good sense of just how much the school has changed since the days when Rivers was an all-boys school. At the opening of school in the fall of 2019, 46% of the students enrolled were girls, 55% of the teaching faculty were women, 45% of the school’s senior administrators were women, and 50% of the department heads were women. The numbers tell an important part of the story but only a part. Rivers was part of wave of coeducation in independent schools in the 1970s and 1980s, and the process at Rivers, as was the case for all schools that underwent the transition to coeducation, posed many challenges and yielded solutions that grew organically from the nature of the school.

As its original name suggests, Mr. Rivers’ Open-Air School for Boys was founded in 1915 as a single-gender school, and it continued to serve only boys until the introduction of coeducation in the fall of 1989. The fact that Rivers was founded as an all-boys school was not unusual. Many private schools, both before and after the founding of Rivers, were created to serve a single gender. Dana Hall (1881), The Winsor School (1886), Belmont Hill (1923), and St. Sebastian’s School (1941) were all founded as single-gender schools and remain so to this day. More typically, the coed, independent schools of today were founded to serve a single gender and later opened up admissions to all students. Both Groton (1975) and St. Mark’s (1978) introduced coeducation in the decade before Rivers, and each school had been around for about 100 years by that time. Middlesex (1974) introduced coeducation almost seventy-five years after its founding, making the length of its history as an all-boys school before introducing coeducation similar to that of Rivers.

Coeducation was planned and carried out during the headmastership of Richard Bradley, Rivers fifth head of school (1981 to 1991). Before coming to Rivers, Mr. Bradley had served as the headmaster at Ridley College in Canada (1971-1980), which, despite its name, was a private high school. While at Ridley, Mr. Bradley oversaw, among other things, the introduction of coeducation at that school (1973). So when Mr. Bradley arrived at Rivers he was no stranger to the process of introducing coeducation at an all-boys school.

The study and implementation of coeducation at Rivers spanned a period of roughly two years. The process commenced shortly after the completion of the Berwind Building project in 1986 when Headmaster Bradley formed a Long-Range Planning Committee to prepare a strategic plan for the school. One of the committee’s nine recommendations was to study the implications of coeducation for Rivers. The trustees followed up on this recommendation, gathering input from faculty committees as well as from families and alums, who completed questionnaires on the issue. On January 13, 1988, the Board of Trustees voted to approve the implementation of coeducation. Over the following months, an Implementation Committee headed by Jim Bouma, and including trustees, faculty, parents, alums, and student liaisons, studied various issues related to coeducation. Members considered such diverse issues as locker rooms, gym and field space, advising, curriculum, the dress code, and the discipline system. Later that June the Trustees voted to initiate the process by admitting girls to grades nine and ten for the 1989-1990 school year. The idea was to build a critical mass of girls at those grade levels and they would then move on to grades eleven and twelve. Given the inquiries by some families about the possibility of girls entering in grade eleven, the decision was also made to allow girls to apply to grade eleven as well.

The first prospective female students toured the campus in the fall of 1988. In January 1989, about fifty girls visited Rivers over a period of two days to get a feel for what a day would be like at the school. Faculty also got a feel for what a coeducational environment would be like by visiting different coed schools in the area.

It is clear that the first young women to tour the campus made an impression on the community. The November 8, 1988 issue of The Rivers Edge reported on the tours of the first girls to visit the school. In the story, Red Key tour guide Ken Ward ’89 was quoted as saying, “ Michelle was much more perceptive, articulate, and genuinely interested in the school than any boy I had ever toured before….” The impressions of students during the 1989-1990 school year also make clear that this initial buzz around coeducation was not fleeting. Tobe Deustchmann ’90 wrote in The Rivers Edge that “[P]erhaps the most evident effect of coeducation seen on campus has been an upsurge in school spirit. Admitting girls to the school has enhanced the school’s image. “ And the many of the girls felt this spirit too. Carolyn Cavanaugh ’91 reflected in a Riparian article that she “loved the energy” that she felt on campus. Julia Russell, who was intimately involved in the process as the Director of Coeducation, recalled the first years of coeducation in this way: “All of the girls were just so happy to be there. Some had older brothers who had the privilege of going to Rivers and they had wanted to but hadn't been able to. They all knew they were the beginning of something special, and they took that role both seriously and joyously. To be in such a minority and to have that attention and pressure was hard, at times, but they handled it remarkably well. They provided, I think, an immediate jolt of self-esteem into the student body.”

Things went well that first year, and on June 8, 1990 Lisa Ward accepted a diploma from Headmaster Richard Bradley, making her the first female graduate in the history of the Rivers School. She was the sole female in that year’s graduating class of forty students. Initially, the implementation committee had recommended admitting girls in grades nine and ten, but Lisa, whose brother Ken had graduated from Rivers the previous year, wanted to enroll as a senior and be the school’s first female graduate, and she successfully petitioned to do so.

According to Tom Walsh, who was Dean of Admissions at the time that coeducation was implemented, the goal for the first year of coeducation was to matriculate twenty-five girls. When school opened in the fall of 1989, thirty-six girls had enrolled, far surpassing the initial goal. In addition to one senior that first year, a number of girls were also enrolled as juniors, and at the end of the 1990-91 school year six girls graduated: Rebecca Cohan, Kristen Fischer, Melanie Garrett, Carolyn Cavanaugh, Kati Reid, and Julia Sforza. Tom Walsh recalls that many of these girls had siblings at the school or had other Rivers connections and were eager to attend. “They were clearly qualified and among the best in the pool …. They made it impossible to say, ‘No.’” By 1992 over one quarter of the graduating class was female, and this number would continue to grow over the next decade. Since 2001 graduating classes have typically had a few more boys than girls, but girls have outnumbered boys in the senior class on two occasions: in 2005-2006 and 2008-2009.

One major challenge of the coeducation process was the introduction and building of a sports program for girls. The introduction of girls’ sports required careful consideration of the number of players teams needed on the field at any given time, and the overall numbers that particular teams typically needed to ensure they could be competitive. Early on the number of teams fielded in any given season was limited in order to ensure that critical mass of players for each team. In some cases, participation on the varsity level was deferred for a few years in order to build numbers. In ice hockey, a program that has enjoyed tremendous success over the years, the girls played a jv schedule for the 2003-04 season years before first competing as a varsity team the following season. Kristin Harder was the first girls’ hockey coach at Rivers and was instrumental in helping to establish the team on a firm foundation. The team first qualified for the New England tournament in its second varsity season, and has made the tournament every year since that time. Girls’ lacrosse was the first spring varsity sport for girls, and the team posted a record of 12 wins and 2 losses in its first season. This early success was not unusual, and it was not long before girls’ teams began winning New England championships: girls cross country won the Class C championship in 1995, girls soccer won the Class C championship in 1995, and girls field hockey won the Class C championship in 1997. The success of the girls’ varsity soccer team has been particularly noteworthy. Under the leadership of Susanna Donahue, who just completed her eighteenth year as head coach, the team has won six New England championships, including a string of three in a row from 2005 to 2007.

Coeducation also impacted the school’s extra curricular activities. One early and important example was the modification of the leadership structure of the student council. Traditionally the group had always had a single leader, but a change was made to create so students would now elect co-presidents, one girl and one boy. This leadership structure was eventually applied to the positions of class co-presidents as well.

A critical way that coeducation changed the school but often goes unrecognized is in the makeup of the teaching faculty. At the time planning for coeducation was underway, women were well represented on the Rivers staff, but the school had only five, full-time female faculty members: Sarah Anderson, who taught math; Eleanor Mahoney, who taught ceramics; Susan McCrae, who taught biology; Margaret Suby, who was head of the Middle School; and Jeanette Szeretter, who taught Spanish and was director of the community service program. Throughout the school’s history, men typically made up the entire upper school faculty and women were responsible for teaching the younger students in grades K-8. An important recommendation of the Implementation Committee was to increase the number of female faculty to teach, coach, and mentor the school’s changing student body. To that end, the school hired a number of new, experienced female teachers to join the faculty: Karen Bryant to teach math; Martha Cummings to teach math; Julia Russell to teach English, serve as Director of Coeducation, and coach girl’s soccer; and Janet Youngholm to be History Department Head and coach girl’s basketball. Rivers would continue to hire female teachers each year, and it was not long before the females outnumbered the males on the teaching faculty, a fact that remains true to this day.

The Rivers of 2019 is very different from the Rivers of 1915. The school has changed in numerous ways in its 104-year history. Four changes of campus, four name changes, three changes in the school’s motto, the school’s merger with the Country Day School for Boys of Boston are just some of the many changes that have taken place over the school’s history. Each of these changes is significant in its own way, but the introduction of coeducation may be the most momentous of the many changes one could list. Coeducation impacted the school in many important ways, and the impact of coeducation continues to resonate to this day.