Castilleja School today marks a changing of the guard for only the fifth time in its 103-year history.
Nanci Z. Kauffman, a longtime Castilleja administrator, teacher and Palo Alto parent, officially will be inaugurated as the sixth head of the highly competitive independent school that educates 415 girls from grades six through 12, including many daughters of the Silicon Valley elite.
Tapped last year to succeed the 17-year tenure of former head Joan Lonergan, Kauffman has had 16 months to ponder what she will do with the role.
She toured other top independent schools for ideas about "best practices," and kept returning to the question: What's the best way to educate girls to become not just scholars but engaged leaders in their communities and in the world?
Founded in 1907 as a girls' feeder into Stanford University, Castilleja traditionally has focused on strong academic preparation.
But today, Kauffman said, the emphasis has shifted.
"We're all looking at the question of, 'What's the difference between preparing students for acceptance into a top college versus preparing them to be lifelong learners, lifelong problem-solvers, and lifelong leaders in some way?'"
The focus of many educators has moved beyond academics to engagement and leadership, she said. At Castilleja, that is particularly seen through the lens of girls.
Kauffman intends to leverage the school's financial resources and well-connected parents to boost hands-on opportunities for girls, particularly in science, technology and engineering and community engagement.
The school's new ACE (Awareness, Compassion, Engagement) Center creates a physical "garage-style" space for girls to brainstorm on action projects with community partners. Castilleja also now offers girls a year-long robotics course, including introduction to robotics and engineering sustainable solutions.
"The phrase '21st century education' is being bandied about quite a bit," Kauffman said in an interview last week.
"People are looking at, 'How do you teach critical thinking so a student not only can read the graph and be a thinker, but also to critically hear a politician speak and say, 'Ah, I don't think so. There's a smokescreen there' -- to have those skills as an engaged citizen?
"It's about channeling what I think all young people have -- a passion to make the world a better place -- and helping them to see they can actually take the lead in doing that.
"Leadership doesn't even have to be running a club or being president of something. It can simply be saying to all your friends at the lunch table, 'Hey you guys, come on, we're supposed to be recycling.'"
Kauffman is often asked why all-girls education is necessary in an age where girls outperform boys on standardized tests and get into colleges in greater numbers.
The remaining challenge, she said, is the leadership barrier.
"We're living in a time where female leadership not only is being celebrated, but actually there's some anguish that we don't have enough of it," she said.
"There's this idea that if we had more compassion, a different style of leadership around the table, we wouldn't be where we are in the world. There's a hunger for the more well-rounded perspective that would be at the table if women were in leadership roles in greater numbers."
In the all-girls cocoon, students have a better chance of finding their own voices, the thinking goes.
"People might think it's a limiting experience, but that's how the girls grow stronger," Kauffman said.
Castilleja routinely hosts high-profile speakers from around the world. Last year's cast alone included publisher Rupert Murdoch, editor Tina Brown, broadcaster Anderson Cooper and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
"I'm constantly amazed at how many of the women speakers here say they went to an all-girls' school," she said, citing Brown and former U.S. Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice.
"When (feminist writer) Gloria Steinem was here, a girl asked her, 'Since we're in this isolated environment, how should we better prepare ourselves for being out in the world and up against men for positions of influence?'
"Steinem's answer was, 'Stay here in this ivory tower for as long as you can; get as strong as you can. Figure yourself out. When you go out into the world, this bubble will help you in ways you'll only discover later.'
"I think it was a very different answer from what the girls were expecting," Kauffman said.