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Agnes Irwin and Her Legacy: Diversity Policies in Action

Agnes Irwin and Her Legacy (Full Series)
Educating Young Women | Diversity Policies in Action | Uninspiring Management | What Will the Future Hold?

On Friday, January 8, 2016, an Agnes Irwin School junior told her 11th-grade homeroom that she identified as a male. The Thursday before, without any notification to parents, the student body had received specific instructions on proper pronoun usage in addressing and referring to transgender colleagues—not a widely “tested innovation.” An email to parents about the transgender boy’s announcement went out to parents on Monday, January 11, from Head of School Dr. Wendy Hill.

Hill came to AIS in 2014 from Lafayette College, where she had been provost and dean of the faculty for seven years. While her arrival might not have been the cause of AIS becoming subject to the cultural and ideological throes rattling the world of higher education, it sure seems to have portended it.

The proudly all-girls school did not have a policy on how to handle transgender boys at the time of the student’s announcement—but, interestingly enough, it did already have a task force studying the matter. AIS may not have been caught so off guard by the development; the task force was presciently formed in October 2015. It was to have determined and announced a policy by Spring 2016.

In the wake of the January 2016 announcement, a formal petition critical of the school’s actions, signed by more than 20 parents, including many alumnae, was submitted to the school’s administration and board members. Fear of ostracism may have prevented more from signing.

“We care deeply about the tradition of rigorous academics that has been solidified here at Agnes Irwin over its 150-year history and wish for that tradition and focus to continue,” according to the parents’ pointed, but respectfully written, petition. “We want Agnes Irwin to foster an atmosphere of critical thinking and a pursuit of knowledge so that our daughters can grow to be successful women who go on to excel in whatever avenue they choose following their time at Agnes Irwin.”

The petition asked AIS:

to take a stance on this issue. We believe in protecting the integrity of the school and its inclusive nature. We believe that we should not discriminate based on gender as well as sexual orientation. We believe these things, however, in the context of how the school was founded, which is as an all female school.

It requested more communication from AIS with parents—preferably before any incidents that might cause concern among so many of them. It specifically sought an open, school community-wide forum on February 2. The school declined.

On February 16, 2016, in an emailed letter to all parents, Hill summarized the work of the task force and announced AIS’s new policy on transgender boys at the girls’ school. “The Board, my administration and I understand the keen interest of the community in the work of our Transgender Student Task Force,” according to her letter. “For that reason, the Task Force accelerated its work to completion and forwarded a report and recommendation to the Board last week . . . .

“First and most important, The Agnes Irwin School is unwavering in its commitment to remaining an all-girls’ school,” she continued. “We will stay true to our Founder’s vision, conceived almost 150 years ago, to provide a rigorous education to girls . . . .

“At the same time,” Hill noted, “another core value of the school—validated through our recent community survey, constituency focus groups, and strategic planning workshop—is the warm and inclusive community, in which each individual is truly known and supported.”

Unwavering Commitment, but Case-by-Case

Then, after describing both the task force’s and board’s awareness “that opinions differ within our community” and the task force’s six meetings and immersion “in research and literature about this topic,” Hill told the parents:

As a result of this work, the Board has endorsed as a general guideline that with regard to any student who identifies as male while enrolled at the School, the School will work with the student and the family in a compassionate manner to foster a move, over time, to another more appropriate educational environment. The School will consider a continued enrollment of the student by applying a case-by-case analysis that examines factors such as how long the student has been at the School, the student’s grade within the division, the ability of the School to support the student, and whether the student’s gender identification has the support of the student’s family. Within the case-by-case analysis, the end of the student’s division will be considered with regard to the time period of continued enrollment. As with any student, the School will consider the individual student’s well-being, that of the other students in the School, and The Agnes Irwin community as a whole.

Hill finished by saying that AIS would only consider admissions applications from girls and that the new policy would be announced to “Upper School students during grade-level meetings tomorrow morning.” She also thanked “the many parents, alumnae, and other stakeholders who took the time to share their perspective.”

In response to an emailed interview request for this article, Hill replied “Thank you for your inquiry, but at this time, we are unable to accommodate your interview request.”

Many parental recipients of Hill’s February 16, 2016, letter plausibly read it to mean, by its own terms, that the transgender boy would be compassionately counseled, albeit perhaps over a reasonable period of time, out of AIS—given, again in its own terms, AIS’s “unwavering … commitment to remaining an all-girls’ school.”

Transgender Boys at All-Girls’ Schools Elsewhere

According to a “position statement” on how to handle transgender students, the nonprofit National Council on Girls’ Schools (NCGS) “encourages our schools to consider, at every point, the importance of working in a supportive way with students and families on a case-by-case basis during enrollment processes and as students identify as transgender within their school communities” (emphasis in original). Its many recommendations include ones to:

  • “make decisions, policies, and procedures related to transgender students in alignment and consistent with their mission and diversity statements;” and, …
  • “consider whether a student who identified as female when enrolled who later identifies as a male can remain at the school, and if not, how the school will support and assist him in finding educational alternatives.”

For an October 2017 paper, NCGS researched what girls’ schools around the country are doing about transgender students and found that many face the same challenges AIS did in early 2016—generally including, among other things, “how do we stay true to our girl-centric mission if we include transgender students?” According to the paper, “Reportedly, high-level administrators at three schools lost their jobs at least in part because they were perceived to be too progressive around transgender inclusivity.”

According to a January 2017 report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, an estimated 0.7 percent of youth between the ages of 13 and 17 identified as transgender.

In the next installment of Agnes Irwin and Her Legacy, sensitive subject matter disrupts the school. 

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Strategic Giving at the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C. He…
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