Malden Catholic High School Launches Nation’s First Girls Leadership Program Curriculum

Melrose’s Eilish O’Brien was excited.  She had never seen her daughter, Eavan, display so much confidence and leadership as she did when Eavan helped plan the first semi-formal dance at Malden Catholic High School’s Girls Division.  Before entering MC “my daughter was very self-conscious and her own biggest critic.  But being a part of the Leadership Program has changed that” O’Brien said.

“Girls are extremely critical and doubtful of themselves, but at MC the Leadership curriculum and teachers help the girls understand that they must love who they are first, and then their self-confidence follows” she continued.

It’s that sort of thinking that has made the Leadership Program the foundational base from which Malden Catholic’s Girls Division was conceived and built.  While Malden Catholic has an illustrious 87-year history of boy’s education, the introduction of the Girls Division has surpassed the school’s wildest expectations.  With 156 girls across the first two classes there is a feeling that the Leadership Program and Malden Catholic’s codivisional structure are creating a unique differentiation that is unseen in Massachusetts.

Mrs. O’Brien’s experiences aren’t unique.  Methuen’s Nicole Autilio has already seen the confidence of her daughter, Christina, improve significantly as well.  “She is not afraid to express herself and knows her voice is valued.  Her relationships are stronger, she works better in groups and has even learned to become more tolerant of other people’s views” Autilio said.

This wasn’t by accident.  Lisa Cenca, the Principal of the Girls Division, believed that if girls had an education based on leadership then superior academic results would follow.  In the conceptual phase of the school, she believed in the idea so fully that she looked at numerous schools across the country to find a model that MC could emulate when it started its Girls Division in 2018.  However, she could not find what she was looking for. 

“I researched so many amazing schools for girls across the country, but I couldn’t find a single leadership-based school.  So, I decided we could make one” Cenca said.

With her leadership idea in tow, Cenca headed for the National Coalition of Girls Schools (NCGS) Conference in Washington D.C. to find women she could partner with on MC’s idea.  

After hearing Julie Carrier, a nationally recognized girls leadership coach and a confidence coach on MTV’s Emmy award-winning show for teens – MADE, Cenca decided that she had to partner with Carrier.  Carrier was immediately drawn to the idea of basing a girl’s school around leadership. 

“Many schools have leadership training for boys, but no one had bothered to make one for girls, so we decided to be the first” Carrier said.

In thinking about a curriculum, Carrier, Cenca, and her colleagues within the MC community, wanted to develop a four-year course where girls could start with core leadership principles before developing their own yearlong research-based project their senior year.  For example, during a student’s first year they will develop their public speaking skills, learn the foundations of building and leading effective teams, and develop awareness of their personal leadership character strengths.  During the second year the program becomes even more ambitious as girls work in small groups on developing the skills needed to give their own TED talks, the powerful short speaking program with millions of views on YouTube.  Just like the real TED talks the students plan to showcase each of their talks on YouTube. 

Their Leadership Program has attracted the attention of some of the foremost leaders of women’s leadership in the country.  Frances Hesselbein, the former CEO of the Girl Scouts and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom signed up to be part of the Leadership Course Advisory Council.  Following Hesselbein was Dr. Carol Kauffman, the Founder and Executive Director of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Diane Ryan, the Former Deputy Head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at West Point.  The illustrious group speaks quarterly to assess the curriculum.  Along with the attention of some of the country’s foremost experts on women’s leadership, the program has also attracted the attention of the National Conference for Girls where Cenca and Carrier recently addressed a room of 300+ people about their program. 

The students at Malden Catholic are the direct beneficiaries of this brainpower.  Hannah Burton, of Woburn, who is currently a sophomore on the cross-country team, an avid choir singer, and a member of the drama club says the Leadership Program has already made a difference in her life. 

“It challenges my way of thinking.  Where normally I would say something might not be possible, the program has helped me say that I should pursue my dreams and passions” Burton said.

Fellow sophomore Elena Chronopoulos, of Somerville, who is also on the cross-country team and in the STEM club, says Malden Catholic’s Leadership Program has dramatically increased her self-confidence. 

“I’ve become much more outgoing and now I feel like there’s no problem going up to new people and introducing myself.  I was able to make new best friends because of the Leadership Program” Chronopoulos said.

Cenca is quick to acknowledge that her leadership teachers at Malden Catholic, Ms. Deirdre Foley and Mrs. Stacie Ferrera, are the real heroes as they implement the program each day.  She is also quick to acknowledge that Malden Catholic’s Girls Division asks a lot from its students.  Each girl is required to participate in clubs and athletics and attend school events.  Even with the rigorous academics, Cenca frequently says that the girls are at the school constantly because they just want to be with each other. 

“It will be 7 o’clock at night and they are still sitting in the lounge just talking and laughing.  I have to remind them that they do have to go home at some point” Cenca said.

The Leadership Program and academic rigor have helped propel the school so much that it has had to go to a waiting list for potential students. 

Malden Catholic’s Headmaster, John Thornburg, stated that leadership is one of the pillars that he wants to model the school. 

“The Girls Division has done a great job of launching an innovative Leadership Program” Thornburg said.

Citing Malden Catholic’s long and storied history of producing male leaders like Nobel Prize Winner, Eugene Fama, US Senators, Ambassadors and numerous corporate leaders, Thornburg believes that a school-wide Leadership Program will be a differentiating factor for the school in the coming years. 

“We have to build on our storied history of leadership in a way that propels our students to be the leaders of tomorrow” he continued.

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