Inaugural class of 48 girls starts new tradition at 135-year-old Orchard Lake school, with separate classes, clubs and buildings alongside boys

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ORCHARD LAKE  St. Mary’s Preparatory has been educating young men for 135 years, but that doesn’t mean the school can’t start new traditions.

In a year of firsts, the formerly all-boys high school launched a companion all-girls division this fall, becoming the first co-divisional high school in the state of Michigan.

Unlike co-ed schools found in the Archdiocese of Detroit, St. Mary’s Preparatory will operate as two separate schools on the 115-acre college campus that also hosts SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary and the Polish Mission.

The school announced the historic change last fall as a way to serve families whose sons received an education at St. Mary’s, and who had a similar desire for their daughters.

“When we announced an all-girls division, we knew right away there would be tremendous interest,” Candace Castiglione, dean of admission at St. Mary’s Preparatory, told Detroit Catholic. “We capped our enrollment for this class at 48, and right away we reached that number. For years, St. Mary families with girls have said how incredible it would be to have a girls school; there is really nothing like us out there.”

Parents who have sent their sons to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Preparatory have inquired for years about the school adding a girls division, admissions director Candace Castiglione said. 

The inaugural girls class at St. Mary’s Preparatory will be composed entirely of freshmen. 

While there are currently four other all-girls high schools operating in the Archdiocese of Detroit, Castiglione said St. Mary’s Preparatory will offer a “college campus environment” that appeals to some families.

Classes are single-gendered, with young men and women only seeing each other between classes, while passing through campus. Girls will have their own class officers, school clubs and leeway to establish their own traditions at the school once visited by Pope St. John Paul II. 

“Teachers who have expressed an interest in teaching boys and girls will teach both in single-gender classrooms,” said Robert Pyles, headmaster of St. Mary’s Preparatory for both the boys and girls divisions. “Classroom sizes are really small, around 16 to a class, so students will get a lot of attention and engagement with teachers.”

Young men and women attend Mass separately, eat lunch separately and have separate student organizations on campus, Castiglione said.

“We’re looking to roll out clubs and extracurriculars in the next two weeks,” Castiglione said. “Our primary goal is to get the school started, and then integrate the school with charitable services, community activities and school spirit. We’re telling the girls, ‘This is a new school; make it your own.’”

At the start of the school year, St. Mary’s Preparatory hosted separate campus walkthroughs for freshman boys and girls before the older students showed up the next day.

To house the girls division, St. Mary’s made use of some of the existing 32 buildings on campus for classes and common areas, establishing the lower level of the school library as a “home base” for the girls on campus.

The 48 girls in St. Mary’s Preparatory’s inaugural freshman class come from 22 different middle schools, about half of which are Catholic schools, and many of whom have brothers or fathers who attended St. Mary’s. 

“We’ve had the Prep Building for years as the home base for the boys, so the library is the home base for the girls to socialize, study and gather,” Pyles said, while acknowledging the need for social distancing. “It is probably the best view of the lake on campus. But beyond that, the girls will have access to the science building, dining hall and our fieldhouse, just like the boys. It will be two schools taking advantage of our campus.”

Mary Roodabergen’s daughter, Josie, is a freshman at St. Mary’s. The family choose St. Mary’s after Josie’s brother, Nick, who graduated in 2018, had a positive experience at the school.

“As our son went through St. Mary’s, our daughter grew up going with him to all the events, sporting events and Masses on campus,” Mary Roodbergen said. “We always hoped the school would be open to girls, praying on it. When it happened, we saw it as a blessing. We were looking at different schools, and really there was nothing like what St. Mary’s was offering for our family.”

Along with the familiarity of the St. Mary’s community, Roodbergen said the college-style atmosphere, from walking to different buildings on campus for classes to the high level of accountability, were key factors in the decision to send Josie to St. Mary’s.

“Josie liked the way the classes are run, learning from Nick,” Mary said. “She liked the idea of moving about the campus, the camaraderie and brotherhood she saw with Nick and his class, and wanted to have that sisterhood.”

The 48 girls in this year’s class come from 22 different middle schools across the country, half of which are Catholic schools. The large, unique campus at St. Mary’s Preparatory was a huge selling point to families who applied, Castiglione said. 

“The job of an admissions director is to work with a family and help a family to find the right fit for their child,” Castiglione said. “All of the Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit are so different from one another, with their own unique niche. For the longest time, only boys had the opportunity to be at high school on a collegiate campus; now girls have that option as well.”

As St. Mary’s Preparatory enters its 135th year, Pyles said the girls who are pioneering the new division as the Class of 2024 are beginning a new tradition, but continuing a proud legacy on the shores of Orchard Lake. 

“We have a great tradition of forming a brotherhood among the students, and we hope to form a sisterhood of the students here,” Pyles said. “Nothing has changed on the boys side. But with our co-divisional model, we are taking the experience young men have had for more than a century and introducing it to young women who want to be formed on this campus.”