Shaping Tomorrow’s Leaders
At Villa Maria Academy High School, students excel by living and learning “like a girl
by Leigh Stuart

The formation of a well-rounded, intelligent young person involves more than classroom instruction, and no one knows this better than the faculty and students of Villa Maria Academy High School in Malvern. The school, which has been “empowering young women since 1872,” provides young ladies grades nine through 12 with not just a first-rate education but also ample opportunity to participate in activities outside of the classroom, all of which leads to the development of upstanding character for which “Villa girls” have become known.  

Outside of the classroom, Villa students excel in a variety of athletic, service and artistic pursuits. In athletics, which 65 percent of the student body participates in, Villa girls achieve greatness in a number of fields. For example, the swim team won its fourth consecutive state championship this past year, and Villa teams including field hockey, soccer, basketball, softball, volleyball, cross country, golf and tennis have earned more than 50 state and District I championships in the last decade.

Students interested in artistic or scholastic extracurricular activities can participate in one or more of five different music ensembles, the yearbook or literary magazine, theater, one of Villa’s five honor societies, the Model U.N., mock trial, Pennsylvania Math League and robotics and technology groups. Service activities are equally important, with options including music and peer ministry, the Children of Mary association, the public relations club and service trips to locales such as El Salvador.

Director of activities Kathy McCartney, who is also a basketball coach and a math teacher, takes the lead in coordinating this bevy of pursuits.

“None of our students comes ‘bell to bell.’ After school, this place is as alive as it is during the day,” says McCartney, who jokingly refers to herself as Villa’s “cruise director.”

“Our students have a very high level of engagement,” she continues. “Students want to stay at school and have fun.”

Drexel Hill native Sister Regina Ryan, principal of Villa Maria, is a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), the order that oversees the operations of the school. Sister Ryan says the integrity, compassion and commitment exemplified by Villa students is due to a number of factors, including the spiritual traditions of IHM heritage and the IHM charism of love, creative hope and fidelity.

“The faculty is so committed to finding the need in a child and creatively making that come alive. Once you are a ‘Villa Girl,’ the IHM charism becomes embedded in your gene pool,” Sister Ryan says. “Parents have many options, but if I had a daughter, I know this is where she would be.”

Another way Villa is helping girls prepare for the future is through the new Senior Capstone Program, a learning activity promoting problem solving and critical thinking skills as well as real life application of knowledge through job shadowing, service and class work.

“Between Lower Merion and here, there are six private, all-girls schools, not to mention all the others that are private or independent coeducational. There are plenty of excellent schools in the area from which parents and students can choose that will provide a very good academic education,” Sister Ryan says. “But here, we are unique. The IHM traditions and spirituality seek to help each student understand who she is … and to develop that at every level.”

Student body president Jenna Brignola is one of many young ladies striving every day to exemplify the values and charisms of Villa Maria.

“I love Villa more than anything,” says Brignola, who served as a freshman homeroom representative as well as president of her class sophomore and junior years. “I love the school so much, I love everyone here, and I want to make [the school] as great as I can. … Villa definitely challenges you to do your best; I love the school for that.”

At present, Brignola, a senior, works toward this goal as not just student body president but also as a member of the student integrity committee and music ministry, a drummer in the Villa orchestra and active player on the soccer and lacrosse teams.

“Villa has instilled me with a strong faith,” she says. “That’s important, because that will carry through your whole life.”

In addition to athleticism and artistry, Brignola upholds another central Villa value: service to others. She is participating as part of a group working to help young women in the African nation of Ghana, a large percentage of whom are forced to quit school before completion due to simple biology and lack of access to sanitary products.

Sister Ryan notes that she has worked in 12 schools over the course of her career and, in terms of commitment to students, not all have been alike. Whereas at some schools teachers disappear as soon as the end-of-day bell rings, Villa teachers make themselves available to students. “Our students are first here, bar none,” Sister Ryan says. “Our girls know that they can get any help they need—support, extra tutoring, anything.”

Brignola expresses a similar sentiment, noting that students push one another to succeed, and teachers are students’ No. 1 fans. “They’re always open to helping you with anything,” she says of the faculty.

Brignola is also quick to mention the sense of camaraderie amongst Villa students. “My favorite thing, really, is the sense of community and family,” she says. “I feel like I can literally walk up to anyone in the hallway and hold a nice conversation with them.”

Alumna Mary Jane Raymond experienced this development, both academic and social, firsthand. Raymond, currently the president of Villa Maria’s alumnae association, is CFO of the company II-VI (“Two-Six”) Inc. This alum (class of 1978) spent her four years at Villa Maria engrossed in a variety of activities, including serving on the student council, writing for the school newspaper and arts magazine, and serving as president of the French Honor Society.

“A friend of mine in college once said, ‘You can always tell an academy girl; they think they can do anything,’” she says. “At Villa, we received a wonderful education from a Renaissance point of view, wherein we learned not only the strict academic disciplines but also the creative and teamwork disciplines.

“We learned to value people in all different walks of life,” she continues. “A student actually has real friends there. The basic atmosphere of kindness creates an environment where really long-lasting friendships can be formed, and formed during the high school years when girls really need them.”

“A Villa Girl has a certain spark, certain poise,” Brignola observes. “The all-girls environment really helps girls grow into their own. It makes us confident young women.”

Indeed, with a nurturing faculty, supportive student body and ample opportunities to excel through arts, academia, athletics and service, it is no wonder the young ladies of Villa Maria Academy High School are acquiring the confidence that comes from living, working and playing “like a girl.”

As Raymond says, “[Villa] did create, in all of us, the sense that we can do anything.”

Villa Maria Academy High School
370 Central Ave.
Malvern, PA 19355

Photograph by Jody Robinson