A New Day at SBA
With the hiring of new principal Gwenda Coté, St. Basil Academy continues to evolve in its quest to nurture girls’ unique talents
by Leigh Stuart

A new day has dawned at St. Basil Academy in Jenkintown. The college preparatory academy for girls grades 9 through 12, sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Basil the Great and steeped in the Ukrainian Catholic heritage, recently brought a new principal on board. At the same time, the school is shaking up tradition to help shape girls into educated and empowered young women.

Principal Gwenda Coté, who took the helm at St. Basil Academy just a few short months ago, brings with her nearly 40 years of education experience. She has served as an education consultant and teacher trainer for Three W International, a student management company focusing on assisting teachers who instruct international students. She holds a B.A. from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., as well as a master’s degree in counseling and a master’s certification in school administration and supervision from Manhattan College in Riverdale, N.Y.

Fittingly, Coté has a great deal of experience working in Catholic schools such as St. Basil Academy. “My whole career has been in Catholic education,” says Coté, who has worked in the past in roles including teacher, campus minister, assistant principal, high school principal and high school president.

Along with hiring a new principal, the school will be raising its already high academic standards, all with the goal of emphasizing the school’s motto: “Educate the girl, empower the woman, enlighten the world.”

One way the school is accomplishing this is by creating “an academy within an academy” that will focus on the study of music. Starting with the freshman class entering the school in 2015, approximately 15 students will, in addition to their academic programs, embark upon what St. Basil Academy educators have developed as a comprehensive, four-year course of study emphasizing music.

“The board [of advisors] is excited about this venture, because the school has a long history of working with music and the arts. It’s one of the strong points we’ve always known we have,” Coté says. “We’re not going to change the fact that we’re a college preparatory academy. The quality of education that surrounds the students will maintain the highest academic standards. … But music is very often considered an elective. As we move forward, we will be offering a full, broad-based music curriculum.”

As one might expect, a great deal of preparation and forethought went into developing the programming for the new music academy. While the students will, of course, still take part in the traditional academic program, the new academy will afford students the opportunity to make music an integral part of their educational experience every day.

St. Basil Academy educators and administrators went so far as to contact some of the nation’s most prestigious music colleges and universities before formulating their curriculum. Institutions such as the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Ohio, Boston University and the New England Conservatory in Boston, SUNY’s Crane School of Music in Potsdam, N.Y., and the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, as well as nearby Chestnut Hill College and Immaculata University, were all solicited to provide input that helped St. Basil Academy decide what would be best for their students to study.

The specialized classes that have been devised from this research will cover topics including music theory and history, harmony, chamber ensemble, voice and master classes that are specific to the student’s instrument of choice. Also, current courses such as “Music in Our Lives,” focusing on how music, in all of its genres, impacts a person as a whole, will continue to be offered.

Students who complete the specialized four-year academic and music curriculum will receive a traditional St. Basil Academy diploma and a certificate of accomplishment from the music academy. While at this time the program is designed specifically for music students, Coté says that the goal is to one day open up similar courses of study in art and theater.

As part of its objective to prepare students for the future, Coté says that she and a team of school leaders will be reevaluating the school’s academic programs. This measure is meant to ensure St. Basil Academy is providing the courses that will best enable each student to realize her full potential.

Coté says one of her plans is to give the young ladies of St. Basil Academy more influence over what happens at their school. She says, “My basic philosophy as an administrator is that decisions should be made at the lowest level possible. I don’t need to make every decision; if students can make decisions, I’d like to empower them to make decisions, learning in the process how to make wise decisions.”

Along these same lines, the old model for student service will also be changing in the near future. Students had historically been required to complete a certain amount of service hours in order to graduate, but this will no longer be the case.

“In reality, if you get credit for service, and have to do it to graduate, then I don’t think it’s truly service,” Coté says. “The requirement stands negatively in the face of service, and could actually push [young people] away from service.”

For this reason a new group, dubbed SBA Cares, will enable students to execute service in its true form—a gift of time to help someone in need. Students will be able to join as core members, who will participate in most outings, or on a per-project basis.

“We want to change the service requirements so that service comes from the heart,” Coté says. “We can only provide the moral, ethical and faith-based reasons why service is a good thing. Students have to want to help themselves.

“If a student chooses to give up a Saturday to work at a women’s shelter, perhaps there will be a more dramatic personal change by that experience,” she continues. “A change of heart is one of the goals [of service].”

Coté is not just focused on evolving the school through individual elements, programs and courses of action, however. When looked at together, her holistic plan for St. Basil Academy puts greater emphasis on students’ futures.

“Students can look up almost anything in a heartbeat,” Coté observes. “Now we need to help them learn skills so their education is not just ‘learn and repeat’; we need to end that kind of learning cycle. Instead the aim is a cycle of ‘learn, integrate and apply’ instead of ‘learn, repeat and often forget.’ The heart of our educational goal has become critical thinking, synthesis, analysis and integration. This enables our students to be far better prepared going into colleges, universities and the world.”

Saint Basil Academy
711 Fox Chase Road
Jenkintown, PA 19046

Photograph by Jody Robinson