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Celebrating 50 Years of Culver Girls Academy

Writer / Jeff Kenney
Photography Provided

Culver Girls AcademyThe staff members at Culver Academies are celebrating a milestone throughout this school year: 50 years since the launch of its first high school program exclusively for girls.

Culver Girls Academy (CGA), initially known as the Culver Academy for Girls (CAG), saw its first 100 students set foot on campus on the fall of 1971, and its first 16 graduates bid the campus farewell in June of 1972.

The opening of the program made headlines across the U.S. This was not surprising since Culver Military Academy (CMA) had earned an international reputation as a boys high school program dating back to 1894. “Culver Military Academy Invaded – By 100 Coeds!” read a typical headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper of the day.

The first young women of CAG were not the first females to attend Culver, however. As far back as the early 20th century, a few faculty daughters audited classes, though a watershed moment occurred in the fall of 1957 when two daughters of CMA instructors, Jean Curry and Greta Hughes, enrolled as proper CMA students – a first for the school. The two graduated in 1959 with CMA diplomas, and by then more faculty daughters were enrolling.

That number always remained relatively small, and the girls were in many ways outside the mainstream of the life and culture of the school. The addition of a summer theater program in 1960, a companion to long-standing, storied summer programs launched in 1902 with the Culver Summer Naval School, paved the way for girls to become part of Culver Summer Schools and Camps. That role became more formal when, in 1965, the first program exclusively for young women at Culver opened as the Summer School for Girls.

An early member of its staff, and soon director of the program, was Mary Frances “Mai Fan” England, daughter of former CMA Band Director William O’Callaghan. England, who had served as a Navy WAVE in World War II and taught English at Culver High School, would be charged starting in the late 1960s with helping research, and taking the lead in developing a girls high school program at Culver.

The decision to undertake such an endeavor was not without controversy or conflict, but it was a logical one at the time as the escalating war in Vietnam had started to change attitudes towards the military. CMA saw decreasing enrollment numbers, and the women’s movement was impacting a number of prominent schools to shift to coeducational models.

Culver Girls Academy

Culver, in fact, sought to handle its program a bit differently than most every other school in the nation by opting for a coordinate model, rather than coeducational proper. That is, the girls school was intentionally developed with a separate leadership structure, priorities, traditions and wardrobe, distinct from the longstanding military program that undergirds the boys school, CMA, to this day.

England and others involved in crafting what would become CGA emphasized the importance of different learning styles and environments for girls than boys. They modeled their program on the European prefect system, soon adopting iconic attributes like the CAG crest (its symbol and coat-of-arms) and Graduation Arch, the latter distinct from the hallowed graduation tradition of the CMA Iron Gate. Girls did not take part in the military exercises utilized in the boys system, and resided, then and now, in dorms rather than barracks.

By 1975 the girls school name had changed to its present-day Culver Girls Academy. Numbers continued to grow, as did opportunities for girls in academics, athletics, fine arts and extracurriculars, as well as in the area of horsemanship.

In 1980 a girls horsemanship club dubbed the Equestriennes became CGA’s first honor organization (requiring strict criteria be met in academics and citizenship in order to participate), and by 1985 the Equestriennes joined the famous Culver Black Horse Troop in its trip to Washington, D.C., to take part in the presidential inaugural parade. That parade was cancelled due to inclement weather, but the Equestriennes rode proudly in the 1989 parade and, with the exception of the 1993 parade, in which Culver did not participate, have done so at each subsequent inaugural to the present day, in addition to appearances at events like the Indy 500 and World Equestrian Games.

In recent decades, CGA leadership has come into its own with gusto, as young women in the program have taken the lead in global endeavors like the Leadership Committee for Africa, and facilitated remarkable initiatives like Relay for Life of Culver. The latter has brought together area residents from a variety of walks of life and has raised more than $1 million for the American Cancer Society. Through the years graduates have earned renown as athletes (including Olympians), businesswomen, entertainment figures and politicians, and also work in an array of fields serving their communities, regions and more worldwide needs.

Culver Girls Academy

The remarkable growth of CGA was not lost on founding Dean Mai Fan England, who, by the time of her death in 1996 (a year during which she was able to take part in silver anniversary celebrations of the school she spearheaded), described the accomplishments of CGA as “very personally for me the realization of a dream.”

Steering the ship of CGA today is the first of its graduates to hold the office of Dean of Girls – Lynn Rasch, from the class of 1976 (and a key staff member at the school from the early 1980s). From that office she and the students, faculty and staff of Culver Academies are spending this school year looking both backward at the genesis and growth of the program, and forward to its next 50 years, with a celebration of the occasion culminating in May of 2022.

Rasch’s own words from 2015, when she took office as dean, may be as apt a summation of the past, present and future of the landmark program as any: “There won’t be any grass growing under our feet. CGA doesn’t rest on its laurels.”

More information on the history of CGA may be found online at culverhistory.wordpress.com/women-at-culver, and at facebook.com/CGA50th. A book on the history of CGA is also forthcoming, with planned availability in the spring of 2022.

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