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By Devin Rose
When Sister Michelle Germanson was asked to be the first president of Trinity High School in River Forest, she had one main concern—too many girls. Germanson had grown up attending co-ed schools during her childhood in Madison, Wis, had two brothers and had never been a president before. She refused the school board's offer multiple times, and couldn't understand why members insisted she was the one for the job.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, all these women. This is nuts!" said Germanson, 67, during an interview in her office at the River Forest school—decked with blue and white Blazers memorabilia—last week.
This year, she'll be celebrating her 20th year as president and will also be honored at the annual Bal Dominique in March that supports financial assistance for students. The Bal, to be held this year at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, features singing and prayers from current Trinity students as well as testimonials from alumni. A few hundred people are expected to attend the event.
So far, Germanson said the board has been quiet about the Bal's details.
It was in her nature to accept the position as president, even though it was unlike any she had held before, Germanson said. Previously, Germanson taught at co-ed schools in Peoria, Chicago and Denver, and she was a dean at nearby Dominican University as well.
She attributed her love of education to her days as an elementary school teacher because the students were always excited to learn. "That's the kind of the energy I have," she said. One day, Germanson decided to each lunch at the Trinity cafeteria while she was mulling whether to take the job as president. She became intrigued while talking to some of the girls, and, when she walked out, her decision was made. "I could feel that there was something very unique about the all-girls environment," she said. "Somehow, it felt right."
As she settled into her new gig, Germanson said she was motivated by the school's mission to empower young women academically, socially and spiritually. At the time, however, a girls-only education wasn't as popular of a choice as it had been in previous decades, Germanson said.
She and other staff began to think closing Trinity was inevitable, and the board weighed whether to close at the end of the 1992-93 school year.
Germanson said the consensus became, "we can take our investment and try to build an awesome school, and if we close at least we know we tried, or we'll make it."
From then on, the board put some new initiatives in place, unsure if any would work to increase enrollment.
They studied the International Baccalaureate academic program and became the second school in the state to implement it after sending the school's teachers to cities across the country to be trained. They started to provide transportation for students who were coming from Chicago and dozens of suburbs. They built up their co-curricular programs, like theater, arts and sports. And they began to study how women learn, Germanson said.
Block scheduling was implemented in the 1990s, and continues to be one of the aspects students appreciate most. The 85-minute class periods allow for more time to discuss and debate topics, which research suggested was better for women because they take longer to process information, Germanson said. Instead of studying seven or eight subjects each night, they concentrate on four.
Another reason the all-girls environment is popular is because it improves students' confidence, Germanson said. According to research, boys are called on more than girls in middle school and high school. But the environment at Trinity encourages the girls to participate so they are not afraid to contribute when they are mixed with boys in college.
"They can just be themselves, and the more you're yourself, the more you can be a contributing person," Germanson said.
Now, the school that was once on the verge of closing is in its 94th year. Enrollment is currently at 534 students — up from about 420 in the struggling years — and improvements continue to be made based on what students want and need. In 2003, a new athletic facility was built next to the school — it bears Germanson's name. And this past fall, a new health center opened at the school, where a nutrition and exercise program will get started in the coming weeks.
Germanson said she's grateful for the donations from alumni, which there have been more of since the 1990s. That support has helped the school stay afloat. She's also glad the school has stayed true to its mission and no longer has to defend itself.
"I think men are wonderful, and I think they are a complement to our lives," Germanson said. "But I knew that if I was going to make happen what I believe in, I needed to do it within a community of women who empower me."