The Marian Middle School choir

Photo by Suzy Gorman

One student came to Marian Middle School with a stutter, brought on by bullying at her previous school. Four years later, she was the speaker at graduation. Another girl became her high school freshman class president after leaving Marian. And in 2012, the middle school saw its first college graduate complete her education at University of Missouri. In just 13 years, the all-girls school has marked countless milestones in its efforts to break the cycle of poverty through education. “Our goal is to serve the underserved and make these opportunities available to girls of promise who wouldn’t have them otherwise,” says Marian board member Susan Conrad.

Marian was founded in 1999 by seven orders of nuns, with a goal of providing quality education in the city. The independent Catholic school teaches grades five to eight for up to 75 students from all religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds, with most qualifying for free or reduced lunch. As part of the NavityMiguel network, the South City institution follows an extended-day, extended-year model, with students in school from 7:45 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., 10 months out of the year, as well as six Saturdays. The extended day allows for extracurricular activities that range from athletics to a new culinary arts program, along with an intensive academic focus that includes mandatory study hall. That academic focus also helps to play catch up for girls who may arrive at Marian a grade level or two behind, says board member Marcia Niedringhaus. “In that four-year period, it gives us a chance to bring them up to grade level or advance beyond.”

Going beyond is a key part of Marian, as its motto states, Educating girls for life. To that end, the school journeys with the students past the critical middle school years, through high school and into college. When they graduate from Marian, the girls make a contract with the school, agreeing to fulfill certain expectations in high school, including a high GPA and participation in a mentoring program back at the middle school. In return, Marian offers financial aid and college prep programs to the students. “We want to make sure they understand this investment in their education will pay off—they will have better jobs, more opportunities and chances to help their families,” Conrad says. “We want to continue to reinforce the idea of positive role models and behaviors so these girls realize they can achieve what they set their minds to, despite the obstacles they face.”

The school also encourages family involvement, and it has a 99 percent attendance rate at parent-teacher conferences. The commitment is reinforced with a small tuition component of $30 to $50 a month. To cover the rest of the $12,000 it costs to educate each girl annually, Marian relies on special events, grants, individual donations and corporate support. “We have tremendous talent in the classroom, wonderful leadership and fantastic volunteers, but we have to have the financial sustainability to make sure we can offer the best facilities, programs and people—it really does pay off,” Conrad notes.

One of those key fundraising opportunities takes place Oct. 17 with Girls Night Out at The Chase Park Plaza. The event, sponsored by Mercy Children’s Hospital St. Louis and emceed by KMOX’s Debbie Monterrey, offers attendees a chance to learn about Marian and meet the girls who directly benefit from their support. “It’s a room full of women in the community who have benefited from great education and now we have an opportunity to make a difference for these girls. It’s a very powerful evening,” says Conrad, who is chairing this year’s event.

As one of the owners of The Chase, Niedringhaus is happy to contribute to Marian’s mission. “It’s been great to have the chance to support another independent organization that has deep roots in the city, with the long traditions of the religious sisters who founded and supported the school. We can see the difference it makes in the community.”

The success of Girls Night Out will help to perpetuate the efforts of Marian Middle School, which Niedringhaus hopes will continue to flourish. “We’ve never had to turn a girl away from the support she needs, whether it’s academic, financial, emotional or spiritual. Given the daily challenges they face, these girls may have not had any idea that they could have these opportunities. They have the chance to dream big from the beginning.”