Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 28, 2007

Castilleja celebrates a century of schooling

Friday party will cap 100 years of challenges and changes

by Arden Pennell

A patch of Palo Alto is turning red and white Friday when revelers don Castilleja School's colors for a 100th birthday celebration. The on-campus bash looks back on a century of all-girls education — a practice not always embraced, said alumna and history teacher Heather Pang.

"It was hard for a while," when public distaste for female-only schooling caused enrollment to dip in the 1970s, said Pang, who authored the book, "Castilleja: Celebrating a Century."

Yet the school endured and this year has 415 girls from sixth through 12th grades enrolled. Its kick-off celebration is scheduled for 3 p.m., with festivities from carnival games to a Decade Parade of alumnae from different eras. There will even be a few men marching, since Castilleja used to have a co-ed primary school until the 1950s, Director of Communications Dana Sundblad said.

Nearly 300 alumni are expected to attend, and the party is geared primarily for members of the Castilleja community, she said.

The school's mission has remained true over the years. Founded in 1907 as a college preparatory for neighboring Stanford University, it continues to send 100 percent of graduates to four-year colleges, said Head of School Joan Lonergan.

But it hasn't always been easy. Founder Mary Lockey allowed poorer students to attend tuition-free during the Depression, a compassionate practice that led to bankruptcy by 1941. Teachers agreed to carry on without pay to help graduate that year's class, and the school became a nonprofit institution in the following year, according to the Web site.

The changing tide of public opinion also threatened all-girls education, Pang said.

The women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s led many all-female schools to transition to co-education and Castilleja's enrollment dropped, Pang said. But when school director Don Westmoreland visited a school that had transitioned to co-ed in the early 1970s, he was unimpressed, Pang said.

"He visited the gym and asked about the women's basketball team. They said, 'We don't have room for a women's basketball team anymore,'" Pang recounted.

Westmoreland decided to stick with the all-girls formula despite the prevailing sentiment that all-girls schools were a thing of the past, Pang said.

The school has long since recovered from the lean years of shrunken enrollment, which ended when later research once again showed the merits of all-girls education, Pang said.

And administrators remain certain that all-female education offers girls a special advantage.

"In a girls' school, girls are not the audience — they're active participants. They learn earlier that it's good to be smart," said Nanci Kauffman, the assistant head of school and dean of faculty.

Some traditions did not stand the test of time, however. A beloved Christmas pageant was discontinued in the mid-1980s because it sent a strongly denominational message that alienated some community members, Pang said.

"It was kind of a conflict because it was this really important school tradition, but eventually we did get rid of it," Pang said.

And a lecture from mid-century director Margarita Espinosa about how to daintily eat an orange is no longer in the curriculum, Pang said.

However, core values of the college preparatory school have not changed, Pang said.

"The original 'Five C's' include 'charity,' and today we might say community service, but the idea is the same," she said.

The administration is now drafting a plan for the next hundred years, Kauffman said. About $36.5 million has been raised to enhance future education, Sundblad said. Among other uses, the money will fund student trips to China or India to learn about human rights as well as a new fitness and athletics center, she said.

Reporter Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at


Posted by ps, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 29, 2007 at 11:42 am

I could stand to learn how to eat an orange daintily and I am a fully evolved modern woman.

Posted by Elaine Womack, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 5, 2007 at 4:08 pm

How about trips to Appalachia, or North Dakota's tribelands, to learn about human rights, and impoverished living conditions? I'm amazed at the amount of money spent on spiffy junkets to the rest of the world by our privileged kids, while problems go festering at home.

I see this play out in the latest rush to the trendy world of establishment funded "social entrepreneurship", where solutions are created by Ivy League graduates for those in far off lands, while remaining allergic to the travails of their fellow contry men and women.

Elitism just rubs me the wrong way, I guess.

Posted by Casti Girl, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 18, 2007 at 12:39 am

Just for your information Elaine Womack, I am a student at Castilleja and we have a global week every year to raise our global awareness, and many speakers and assemblies about global issues. Just last week we spent the whole day volunteering to help kids from an East Palo Alto School and donated over 10,000 books as a school to East Palo Alto Charter school, kipp academy, and YES reading. The party was intended as a gathering for alumni to reunite and to culminate the centennial achievements of the school!

Posted by Roberta Lopez, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 30, 2007 at 3:21 pm

Castilleja is a fine college prep school for young women. It is also a business, and must complete for the best applicants and the revenue that comes along.

An annual global week, along with trips overseas looks good in the annual report, and marketing literature.

That is why Elaine Womack is right. Trips to North Dakota and Appalachia are not exciting. 'Spiffy Junkets' for all students appeals.

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