School leader seeks to empower girls
When the robotics team from the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, an all-girl Catholic high school in San Diego, traveled to the national robotics championships in Houston, team members were asked if boys had built their robots.
The incident demonstrated that, although girls are more involved today in STEM subjects, (science, technology, math and science), they still aren’t always viewed as true partners with their male counterparts, said Lauren Lek, a Carmel Valley resident and head of school at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace.
For example, at co-ed schools, girls might be members of the robotics team, but not get to use power tools or do the computer coding necessary to program the robots, Lek said.
The Academy of Our Lady of Peace team was one of the few all-girl schools to make it to the nationals, said Lek. “Our girls recognized they were precedent-setting, shifting norms.”
Lek came to the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in 2013, after serving as principal of her alma mater, Moreau Catholic High School, in the San Francisco Bay Area. As head of school at San Diego’s only all-girl high school, Lek has focused on advancing opportunities for women and girls in the community and the workplace, including initiatives that highlight non-traditional career paths for women.
One result of that focus, said Lek, is that about 40 percent of the school’s graduates enter STEM majors in college, compared to a 16 percent national average for boys and girls.
The Academy of Our Lady of Peace is also the only all-girl school in California to have an e-gaming team, a competitive sport at the high school and college level in which participants battle each other on video game platforms. Top players can earn college scholarships, Lek said, and women are under-represented in the sport.
As well as being the only all-female school, the Academy of Our Lady of Peace is also San Diego’s oldest high school. It was founded in 1882, and it moved to its current campus Oregon Street in the 1920s. The school currently has 750 students in grades 9-12. The school has also launched a $24 million construction project that will include upgrades to existing buildings as well as a new library and performing arts building.
According to Lek, research shows that girls who attend an all-girl school have more confidence, higher academic achievement and a higher percentage will pursue STEM careers.
“The advantages are so significant. It puts them on a trajectory of leadership that will serve them for the rest of their lives,” she said.
One myth that Lek has sought to dispel – perpetuated through movies and popular culture - is that an all-girl school is a hotbed of drama, where “mean girls” tear each other down.
Neither research nor observation of the dynamic at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace supports such a conclusion, Lek said. Instead, “Girls are championing other girls and celebrating each other’s accomplishments.”
When only girls are present at school, she said, students don’t have to fall into traditional male and female roles. “Girls can be whatever they want to be,” she said.
The school construction project provided one opportunity for girls to experience a career that in the past has been male-dominated. The contractor for the project, which is headed by a female CEO, has offered internships for a dozen students each semester.
An upcoming Women’s Symposium, being held on March 13 for the sixth year, will offer additional opportunities for students to see and hear female leaders in action. The keynote speaker will be Haben Girma, the first deaf and blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.
The theme for this year’s event, Lek said, is “She is….” and panels will focus on such topics as the personal and professional challenges faced by women, stories of women who were trail-blazers in their chosen professions, and success stories of younger women.
“We know that when girls can see it, they can be it,” Lek said.
The event is open to the public, and tickets, including breakfast and lunch, are $50 for general admission, and $15 for school alumna, parents, college students, and young professionals under 30. For information, visit https://www.aolp.org/olpws/.
Lek, a mother of three who has a doctorate in educational technology leadership from Pepperdine University, has also been involved in numerous philanthropic activities over the years, is a trained pianist and has earned several honors, including the 2016 Athena Pinnacle Award for Education.