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Published in Print: October 1, 2003, as Maine Attraction

Maine Attraction

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The state's only single-gender secondary school wins a basketball championship— and newfound attention.

Three thousand fans packed the stands of the Bangor Auditorium this past spring to witness Maine's biggest basketball spectacle. The Warriors of Nokomis Regional High School were taking on the Lions of Catherine McAuley High School for the Class A girls state championship. The Warriors, from just down the road in Newport, were playing in their own backyard, but the Lions had traveled 120 miles north from Portland for the game. Still, the McAuley faithful were out in force, dressed in the Catholic girls' school's green and gold, faces painted, waving pompoms, and bearing hand-lettered signs that read "Nun Better" and "Sisters of No Mercy."

At halftime, McAuley was down 22-14, but in the second half the Lions came roaring back, going on an 8-point run that tied the score 22-22. Led by senior point guard Sarah Marshall, the Lions rebounded ferociously, defended tenaciously, and made key free throws as the lead changed hands seven times. The unsung hero of the second half was 5-foot-9 sophomore forward Tara Beaulieu, who, with brunet ponytail flying, swarmed all over Nokomis' star player, 6-foot center Danielle Clark, denying the bigger girl the ball and holding her to 12 points, eight fewer than her season average. McAuley won, 50- 39.

As the jubilant teammates hugged each other and their fans in celebration, Sarah embraced coach Liz Rickett and asked, "Can you believe we won it again?" Indeed, the McAuley Lions had repeated as state champions, capping a remarkable run of victories that began with their Cinderella season in 2000. In 1999, Rickett's first year as coach, McAuley posted a dismal 1-17 record; but the following year, convinced by their new coach that a Catholic girls' school with an enrollment of just 300 could compete against public high schools three, four, and five times its size, the 8-10 Lions managed to claw their way from the 10th seed in the state tournament to win the Western Maine title. Though the team lost the 2000 state championship game, the Maine press called the scrappy Lions a "real-life Hoosiers story" worthy of the "state title for gutsiest comeback."

Overnight, Catherine McAuley became a basketball powerhouse, making it to the state championship again in 2001 and winning the gold-ball trophy the next two years. One of the biggest reasons for the team's turnaround was Sarah, Maine's 2003 Player of the Year, who transferred to McAuley as a sophomore. This past spring, as she prepared to graduate and accept a full scholarship to play basketball at Boston College, she reflected on what her team's success has meant to Maine's only single-sex secondary school.

"It's put Catherine McAuley on the map," she said. "Everyone in the state was able to see what kind of school McAuley was."

McAuley High is a two-story brick building connected to a gymnasium and auditorium by a glassed-in "mall," where students, dressed in red- and-gray plaid skirts and white blouses topped with either red sweaters or gray fleeces, congregate before and after classes and at lunch time. Operated by the Sisters of Mercy, the school is on the grounds of the order's golden-domed motherhouse on a busy avenue in suburban Portland. A wrought-iron fence surrounds the entire complex.

Named for the Irish founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley was established in 1969, after the order's St. Joseph's Academy boarding school merged with the diocesan Cathedral High School. It's been Maine's only single-sex secondary school since nearby Cheverus High, a Jesuit school for boys for 82 years, went coed in 2000 to increase enrollment and remain economically viable. During Catherine McAuley's 34year history, periodic rumors have surfaced that it, too, would go coed. But, as Sister Mary Morey, president of the McAuley High board, points out, the school's 19th-century namesake began her mission work in Ireland by housing and educating orphaned and working girls. So running an all-girls school, she says, "is integral to our mission as Sisters of Mercy."

Tara Beaulieu was dragged to McAuley High kicking and screaming, but in a way it was her own fault. Inspired by the team's Cinderella season, she attended a summer basketball camp at the school. She was voted most valuable player, and Coach Rickett gave her family season tickets to Lions home games. As an 8th grader, Tara let it slip that she might like to attend McAuley, a surprise to her parents because the Beaulieus are not Catholic.

When it came time to decide on a high school, Tara and her parents had three choices: Portland High, her father's alma mater and a city school offering the state's most diverse student body; Deering High, a suburban school that most of the kids in Tara's neighborhood would attend; and Catherine McAuley, a $7,000-a-year private institution. Tara leaned toward Deering, but after her parents toured McAuley, they knew immediately where she'd be going.

"What sold me," says Tammy Beaulieu, Tara's mother, "was a science class. I saw 10 kids in the class. They were all facing forward, and the teacher was teaching. I just knew everyone was focused, and they were learning. Tara would have been fine at Deering, but she wouldn't have been pushed. Tara is very competitive, and in public school the competition is just not there in the classroom."

In her first-period honors algebra II class, Tara doesn't look all that competitive. Wearing sneakers and a Boston College sweatshirt with her McAuley plaid, she adjusts her ponytail, talks quietly with a friend, and appears to ignore teacher Russ Valentine's explanation of the remainder and factor theorems for polynomial equations. But when another girl blurts out "That's cool! Who figured that out?" Tara snaps to attention, ready with questions of her own.

There are only 11 girls in Tara's algebra class, but 19 later pack into her Spanish II classroom, where teacher Terrilynn Dubreuil leads a recitation of the Lord's Prayer in Spanish. The kids then settle in to listen to classmates report on Latin American celebrities like baseball stars Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero.

In English, Lynn Erkkinen drills her 16 pupils on vocabulary words and seems pleased when one student, asked for an example of "synesthesia" (the rhetorical device of describing one sense by using another), immediately volunteers the Skittles candy slogan, "Taste the rainbow." Erkkinen then prepares them to read The Great Gatsby. "This looks like it must be a hard book," observes Tara, "because it has explanatory notes."

Only nine of the 45 McAuley faculty members are Sisters of Mercy, and there is considerable turnover among the lay staff, in part because the school pays just 85 percent of what public school teachers earn. No one at McAuley argues that the school has a better academic program or better teachers, just a different learning environment. "Student behavior and discipline is too flexible in public school," says math teacher Valentine, who came to McAuley after teaching at nearby Deering High for two years. "Kids are always looking for limits, and if you don't let them know, they go too far." Dubreuil, another former public school teacher, plans to transfer her own daughter to the school.

Private schools, of course, are not forced to educate students with behavior or learning problems, and Catholic schools tend to be orderly institutions. Eighty percent of McAuley High's students come from Catholic families, but both Sarah Marshall, who is Catholic, and Tara, who is not, say that religion was not a factor in their enrollment decisions.

That leaves the school's all- girl culture as the defining difference. It's the one thing that everyone connected with the school seems to agree on: Girls do better without the distraction and disruption of boys in the classroom. "That was something I was shaky about when coming to McAuley," Sarah says. "I was a huge tomboy, and all my friends were guys at Falmouth High School. But now, I don't even realize there aren't boys. With all girls, everyone's more themselves, and conversations are more relaxed."

According to Whitney Ransome, co-director of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, all-female institutions have experienced something of a renaissance in recent years. NCGS represents 100 of the estimated 500 girls schools in the United States, and Ransome says at least 35 new facilities have opened since the coalition formed in 1991.

Whatever the reasons for enrollment at Catherine McAuley, it's hard to argue with the school's accomplishments. Not only did the Lions remain state champs in basketball this year; McAuley students also took first place at the regional drama festival and at the We the People mock congressional hearings in Washington, D.C. The entire class of 2003 has been accepted to four-year colleges, and three of the 72 graduates are National Merit finalists.

'Girls," says Sister Edward Mary Kellerher, McAuley's principal, "may I have your attention please." Instantly, an entire auditorium falls silent. "I am going to bring in the seniors. That means no talking."

With that, a pianist plays "Pomp and Circumstance" as the graduating seniors, arranged in order of height and dressed in white caps and gowns, march in pairs for the Class Day assembly. Once onstage, they sing "America the Beautiful" and a lovely rendition of "One Moment in Time." The underclass officers present gifts of picture frames and T-shirts to the seniors. Then everyone sits forward to watch the class video—a collage of candid snapshots accompanied by such pop tunes as "Get the Party Started," "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," and "Forever Young."

The girls on the wide-screen TV and those in the auditorium look happy and healthy. No facial piercing or radical hairdos are allowed, and no boys are pictured—even in the prom photos. The whole assembly has an air of sisterly affection.

When the video ends, the McAuley seniors, now free of their caps and gowns, circulate throughout the auditorium, exchanging cards and flowers. Sarah, dressed in a summery skirt and untucked blouse, hugs her friends and her mother. She says she made the right choice when she transferred to McAuley three years ago. Falmouth High, which her three older sisters attended and where she spent her freshman year, is one of Maine's best high schools. Located on a spacious campus in a wealthy community, Falmouth moved two years ago into a brand-new, state-of-the-art building and annually posts among the highest scores on the Maine Educational Assessment tests—which McAuley, as a private school, does not administer. Still, Sarah chose McAuley, and two of Falmouth's best basketball players followed her lead in subsequent years.

‘The classes are small, and there's lots of one-on-one attention. The sisters know everyone, so it's a very personal environment.’

Sarah Marshall,
Catherine McAuley High School

Sarah's parents, John and Susan Marshall, say McAuley was always in the backs of their minds, in part because John is a graduate of Cheverus. But it was the team's run at the state championship that rekindled everyone's interest. Still, "it definitely was not a purely basketball decision," Sarah says. "I couldn't be happy if I was just happy with the basketball side of it. The classes are small, and there's lots of one-on-one attention. The sisters know everyone, so it's a very personal environment. I've had the best time here, and I've learned a lot."

While the basketball-related publicity has helped the school reconnect with alumnae and has won it support in the broader community, McAuley did not experience a spike in applications. Interest is more closely tied to the economy. Sister Kellerher has found, however, that when interviewing prospective students, she no longer hears, "I really want to the come to the school, but..." The "buts," years ago, were often followed by concerns about the quality of athletics and extracurricular activities.

Even Tara is willing to admit something she's never told her parents—she actually likes attending McAuley. "They made me come here. I wasn't happy about the decision at all," she says. "Sometimes I still wish I could go to Deering, but I've met so many new friends. I get the best of both worlds."

Tara explains that along with her new friends at McAuley, she's managed to retain her old ones at Deering, a major concern when she first enrolled. She needn't have worried. During the Western Maine playoffs earlier this year, Tara's two best friends went into the restroom after a Deering game and changed out of their school's purple into McAuley green and gold to root for their old friend and her new school.

"This school is different," says Tara, "but not that different."

Vol. 15, Issue 2, Pages 18-21

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