Thirty years ago this month, "The Pioneer Women" walked through the doors of Providence Country Day and launched PCD's transformation into a coeducational school. Previously an all-boys institution for sixty-eight years, in the autumn of 1991, PCD welcomed twenty-five girls into its student body. The Pioneer Women joined athletic teams, took on leadership roles in extracurricular clubs and activities, and most importantly, experienced and contributed to the encouraging and supportive atmosphere characteristic of PCD since the school's inception in 1923.
The Pioneer Women, says Sue Sargent, Curriculum Coordinator and Director of The Learning Center at the time, quickly became "an integral part of the fabric of the school."
"It was such a welcoming environment for me," says Michaela Quinlan, Class of 1993 and one of The Pioneer Women. "I think it took the boys a little while to get used to us there, because of course they had their own style, but we received such a warm welcome from the faculty and other students."
While many of the puzzle pieces for a successful transition were already in place—a progressive and forward-thinking faculty, a supportive and collaborative educational atmosphere fundamental to the character of the school, female faculty and department heads who were already a valued part of the community—PCD was, Sargent says, "in new territory. And we really wanted to do it right."
This desire to "do it right" and ensure that Quinlan and her fellow Pioneers received a warm welcome on day one was, in fact, the result of years of research and work. And like so much of the work teachers do, much of it was behind-the-scenes and unknown to their incoming students.
Setting the Stage: The PCD Faculty and Staff
Although The Pioneer Women first joined PCD in the fall of 1991, the decision to go coed was made nearly eighteen months prior when the Board of Trustees unanimously voted in favor of the move. This momentous vote followed months of research by PCD's Committee on Coeducation which included interviewing eleven schools that had recently transitioned to coeducation; extensive conversations with PCD alumni, parents, and students; examinations of gender-based learning differences; and research into the benefits of coed versus single-sex education.
"We realized that coeducation would be a better experience for both boys and girls, and it would broaden their experience," says Sargent, who was deeply involved in the research leading up to the decision. "Girls tend to bring to the classrooms a different point of view, and we thought girls would add greatly to the academic atmosphere."
Once the vote was agreed upon, more than a year was dedicated not only to the logistics of bringing girls to PCD for the first time—such as the addition of female locker rooms and the hiring of a female athletics coach—but also to the preparation of faculty, staff, and students for the impending transition.
"We wanted PCD to be a truly coeducational school and not a boys school that, by the way, now had some girls," says Sargent. "We were very, very mindful that we wanted to make this a smooth transition for the young men and the young women and we knew that there were many pieces to that puzzle. There was the academic piece, the sports piece, and certainly the emotional component and well-being of mind."
This sentiment was echoed by Sargent's fellow PCD faculty, many of whom worked tirelessly to prepare for the girls' arrival.
"The learning environment should not quiet either a boy or a girl," says Carol-ann Tripp, Physics Teacher and Head of the Science Department during the transition. "The job of a teacher is to make sure that every voice is heard, and I was hoping to promote understanding and sensitivity to gender differences as we prepared for the transition."
In pursuit of this goal, Tripp offered workshops to her fellow faculty on awareness and sensitivity in coed learning environments, drawing on the data and experience she had accumulated over years of attending monthly meetings of the American Association of Physics Teachers. Her attendance at the meetings, which took place in New York City, had been supported and encouraged by the previous Head of School, Evan West—a decision on West's part that seemed increasingly prescient as PCD moved towards coeducation.
"Much of what was discussed at the meetings was girls learning physics and the dynamics of coed and single-sex learning environments," says Tripp, "and I was able to bring this knowledge back to PCD and offer workshops to faculty prior to the coed transition."
Also providing opportunities for preparation and professional development was Sargent, who organized a faculty retreat in Newport in the spring of 1991. The two-day program, which included personality tests, workshops, speakers, and group discussions, was "very fruitful," says Sargent. "We wanted there to be a better understanding of different ways people process, different ways people see things, and how that would help us in our teaching and learning. I think the retreat opened a lot of eyes."
"There was a lot of teamwork involved in preparing for the transition," Sargent continues. "The faculty put in hours of productive thinking and reading to ensure that the girls not only felt welcome, but that they were an important part of the school."
"The transition could not have gone better," says former Head of Upper School Gerry Connolly. "We wanted everyone to feel safe and have a voice, and that first year, the girls felt more supported at PCD than the schools they had come from, whether they were coed or single-sex schools."
This desire to ensure that the transition occurred smoothly, with sensitivity and understanding, is what truly set PCD apart from other schools, says Connolly.
"While enrollment was certainly the moving force behind what we did in the 90s, our priority was how to make it work and make it work well. In many ways, I thought we were further along the path than schools who had made the change in the 70s. Those schools were so entrenched. They had pretty much all male faculty, and that's a very hard thing to change and you can't do it overnight. At PCD, right from the get go, we were way ahead in that regard because we had so many female faculty and multiple female department heads."
Another important piece of the puzzle, says Connolly, was hiring a female coach for the girls athletic teams that would begin in the fall. That new hire was Suzanne Bailey. "I can't say enough about Suzanne, or her presence and what she brought to the school," says Connolly.
"Suzanne Bailey," Sargent agrees, "was a great influence on those young women."
Entering the Scene: The Pioneer Women
When Pioneers Kate Telford '93 and Michaela Quinlan '93 first stepped onto the PCD soccer field in 1991, they came face to face with new hire Suzanne Bailey.
"I couldn't imagine a more perfect person to be in that role," says Telford. "Suzanne Bailey is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I've ever met."
Like Telford and Quinlan, Bailey was new to PCD. When she joined the English faculty and coaching staff in the fall of 1991, she had just graduated from Brown University and was a new member of the U.S. Women's Lacrosse Team.
"I was hired just shy of my twenty-second birthday," Bailey laughs, "and I was in many ways as young and as raw and as wide-eyed as anyone. We had to figure it out together. I look back on how we did that with a mixture of awe, and pride, and so much humility. Those girls were courageous and resourceful, and we really did do that together."
One of Bailey's first tasks was coaching the girls soccer team, starting with preseason in August. That preseason would prove instrumental to welcoming the first girls to PCD.
"I'll never forget that first preseason and seeing us all come together on the field," says Bailey. "At the time, I don't think I understood the magnitude of what we were undertaking, but I was just so thankful that we were together. Those girls at the very beginning were real pioneers."
The importance of that first preseason resonated with the athletes as well, and is still remembered today.
"Almost all of the new girls were on the soccer team and we started practicing before school even started," says Telford. "It was almost like an orientation. That first soccer season we all became friendly and bonded, so by the time day one of school started, most of the girls knew each other and there was already that support in place."
"Suzanne Bailey," agrees Quinlan, "was really important to our transition to coeducation. She made us feel comfortable, welcomed us, and was such a wonderful leader."
Creating a welcoming and encouraging atmosphere in girls sports was a personal priority of Bailey's. "I wanted the girls so badly to have the respect they deserved," she says. "They were coming into an all-boys environment, and participating in athletics, always, no matter who you are, involves taking a big risk. You make yourself vulnerable. For many of these girls, sports were relatively new. They were courageously putting themselves out there. I wanted their peers to respect what they were doing and to see them as full classmates, as capable athletes, as brave people—because they were."
This respect and consideration for the female students was carried into the classrooms and reverberated throughout the school. "Almost immediately the girls were very involved in the newspaper and yearbook, the judicial board," says Connolly. "Getting them involved in integral, leadership roles from the beginning was very important. We also met with the girls before they came and then met with them as a group on a regular basis throughout the year to hear how things were going and to take their advice."
Another important puzzle piece of the successful transition, says Connolly, was the attitude and actions of the senior boys. "They really had no stake in this as it was their last year, but they were very accepting, very supportive and helpful. They really helped to set the tone."
"We just came right in and classes started," Telford remembers. "The teachers and the school itself were so supportive—and continue to be to this day. It was a very positive experience for me."
Quinlan, whose older brother had graduated from PCD in the spring, says, "I can't believe how welcomed I was. It was slightly intimidating joining a school that had previously been all boys, but the faculty eliminated that intimidation for me from day one by providing a collaborative learning experience and really making it a very welcoming, warm, safe, comfortable learning environment for all of us."
This supportive environment extended to new faculty like Bailey as well, who credits the mentorship she received at PCD with setting her permanently on a career path in education. Bailey remembers Mark McLaughlin inviting her to boys' soccer practices to advise him on the design of corner kick set pieces, and she vividly recalls Carol-ann Tripp offering encouragement and support after overhearing her English classes. "She would say to me, 'you're on the right track,' and that meant the world to me," Bailey recalls.
Until recently, Bailey, Telford, and Quinlan were unaware of the full extent of the faculty's preparation for the transition, although given the welcome they received at PCD, none of them said they were surprised.
"I give my colleagues at PCD so much credit for everything they did to prepare for the coed transition," Bailey says. "I remember personally, and for the girls, just feeling overwhelmed by the warmth and enthusiasm from teachers and staff in the community. They were on the sidelines at games, they talked to girls about what they were doing, they encouraged me in the work we were doing together. It was wonderful."
Telford agrees, saying, "It's quite impressive that the PCD faculty did so much work in preparation for the coed transition, especially because that wasn't the norm during that time in educational settings. I went to an all-girls school before PCD, then ended up graduating from an all-women's college, so I'm very sensitive to coed and single-sex education models and what happens to girls and women in the classroom. In my experience, PCD was 100% successful creating not just a safe environment, but a comfortable and equitable one. They absolutely did that."
"PCD was a constant learning environment, very open and welcoming, a very collaborative and comfortable learning space," says Quinlan. "It was a style of learning different than what I had experienced previously. That first year was a little nerve-wracking, but so exciting!"
"That first coed year was a great time," Sargent agrees. "When those doors opened that first year, it was with excitement and trepidation both. And," Sargent laughs, "the boys bumped around a lot less in the hallways!"
Encore: Thirty Years Later
Disbelief that it's been thirty years since PCD went coed was the first reaction from the faculty and alumni interviewed for this story. Gratitude for the transition, and the people behind it, was the second.
"We had a lot of good people in the right place when we made the transition," says Connolly, who now teaches Latin at Indian Creek School in Maryland. "Having faculty like Carol-ann Tripp, Carol Conrad, Judith Speyer, Dana Koss, Suzanne Bailey, Sue Sargent—that was huge."
"Coeducation provided different perspectives and all of those differences made for a richer educational environment, especially in physics," says Tripp, who retired from PCD in 2020 after teaching for forty-two years and earning numerous teaching accolades along the way. "Asking questions and thinking of inferences that some folks would be aware of and others would not—it made for much richer discussions and investigations."
"I felt really good about how everybody handled the transition," says Sargent, who taught at PCD for nineteen years and is now retired. "We deliberately created an atmosphere where women were welcomed. I think it went very smoothly."
"What those girls did at the beginning, to build and be part of something so special, I have such admiration for them," says Bailey, who after 17 years at PCD moved home to the D.C. area to teach at The Potomac School. "I loved working with them. Those are my best memories in education, those early days together."
Telford is still local to Rhode Island, and is now the Senior Digital Archivist for the Rhode Island State Archives, a role she says satisfies the love of history she first discovered at PCD. "I have nothing but positive memories about PCD," she says, adding that many of The Pioneer Women are still friends.
One of those friends is Quinlan, who is a sommelier in the wine industry and also a therapeutic horseback riding instructor. She credits PCD with instilling in her a desire to pursue multiple interests and be a life-long learner. "I feel so fortunate that I was at PCD, especially knowing the history and background and what Country Day put into making the coed transition possible," says Quinlan. "I'm so proud and thankful that I was part of it. I will always be grateful to the staff and the faculty for their support of all of us."
Thirty years after The Pioneer Women first walked through the doors, PCD's student body continues to bring a richness and diversity of perspectives to the school—and PCD faculty, in keeping with the values held during the 1991 transition, continue to provide an inclusive and supportive space for this diversity of voices, no matter how students may choose to identify.
"The whole idea of diversity in any form is that you bring different perspectives and voices to the table, and we want all of those voices to have a place at PCD. The coed transition was a big step towards doing that," says Jennifer Aitken, Head of Upper School. "Now we have students who identify as male, female, or gender-fluid, and we also have a lot more inclusivity across the board including cultural, socioeconomic and racial diversity in addition to gender."
"The school's decision to enroll its first cohort of young women in 1991 was a seminal moment in PCD's history," agrees Head of School Kevin Folan. "The world is coed, and PCD must be too if we are going to send our students out into the world prepared to take on any challenge. As the proud father of a future female Knight," he adds, "I would have it no other way."
Some of PCD's finest academics, athletes, artists, musicians, and leaders came from those early years of pioneering women, says Folan, and the last three decades have seen both female and male student body co-presidents, student council members, Roundtable editors, and club leaders. The first female Head of School, Susan Haberlandt, served at PCD from 1998 to 2011. The Pride Alliance, social-emotional learning curriculum, diversity, equity, and inclusion activities, and countless other programs are now all integral to PCD's culture.
"PCD is always thinking about the best way forward," Bailey reflects. "It's a gritty, tenacious, beautiful place. PCD walks the walk."
And because PCD faculty and staff walked the walk thirty years ago, The Pioneer Women were the first of a generation of female students to graduate from PCD with the confidence to use their voices in the world—in part because their voices were heard and encouraged at PCD.