Enduring 'experiment': Campus Middle School for Girls marks 25th year

Enduring 'experiment': Campus Middle School for Girls marks 25th year

URBANA — It had been, from the start, education that brought them together.

Brigitte Pieke and Marianne Feinberg weren't close — not even friends, really. But they'd been running into each other for years — first at the Urbana preschool both their daughters attended, then during elementary school, where their children became best friends.

It wasn't until each of their daughters approached them with a question that accelerated their relationship from casual to formal partnership:

Could we try homeschool instead?

The answer was no.

But both Pieke and Feinberg worried about whether public school was the right academic environment for their daughters, and empathized with their desire to be homeschooled.

"So we said, 'No. We are going to do something better,'" Pieke said.

With a question, they'd gone from acquaintances to co-conspirators, from seeing each other only in passing to meeting regularly in their homes, debating for three months what they'd do for their daughters.

They decided to start a school.

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The year was 1993.

The riot grrl manifesto had been published. 

Time magazine kicked off the year with an issue declaring 1992 to be "The Year of the Woman."

The third wave of feminism had arrived. 

And yet Pieke and Feinberg were searching for parents interested in sending their daughters to an all-girls middle school — what's now known as Campus Middle School for Girls — that would offer a curriculum that included knitting and sewing.

Pieke insists that though the notion of an all-girls school was an anomaly, it wasn't necessarily seen as an oddity, that "people were interested" in what she and Feinberg had in mind.

"This was also the era where you talked about women, young women, not being so successful, for example, in math," Pieke said. "There were also books out about how girls didn't learn well in co-educational classes. So, we went for all girls at the time. We loved it and thought we did the right thing."

Seven other girls committed to being part of the inaugural nine-student class of 1994-95 at a school that didn't yet exist. As Pieke and Feinberg rushed to formalize what they were still referring to as "an experiment," Pieke said there were no plans for a long-term future.

Certainly, no one ever thought there'd be a 25th anniversary gala in February 2019, like there will be this weekend.

"We thought it would just go for a year," Pieke said.

So they were joyful when Feinberg found them a single room for the "school," buried in the basement of the Wesley Foundation building in Urbana. Another victory: luring three official teachers — for French, English and science, complementing the work both women's husbands had committed to the school.

"My husband is a physicist in nuclear engineering, so he said he was going to do math," Pieke said. "Marianne's husband was a professor in art. ... He would take the girls to the Chicago Art Institute."

Some parents with UI ties dropped in to give special lectures for the nine girls.

"We were very university-oriented because that's where our friends were, and it was normal," Pieke said.

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In that first year, the one-room-schoolhouse method fit all the girls, who ranged from sixth to eighth grade.

They took field trips at least once a month. They held gym classes too, by moving the class to Uni High on Fridays. Pieke, whose German grandmother taught her to knit in the ration-scarce days following World War II by burying candy in large balls of yarn, established the first knitting classes.

"It was my passion, always," she said.

Meetings between parents and "staff," academic or otherwise, were held at Pieke's home.

It was students who finally came up with a name for it all. They called it "Home Hi."

"People always asked me, 'Why do you have this name?'" Pieke said. "I said, 'Well, this is what the girls made up, and I really liked it.'"

But the name wasn't really supposed to matter — this was just an experiment, after all.

Until it wasn't.

After the first year came a second, this time with 12 girls and more teachers. Pieke stepped into a directing role, and turned the one-room-in-a-basement operation into an official nonprofit, tuition-funded private school.

"Later on, we got more rooms, and I got an office where I was all day," she said. "It was just wonderful, but it was taxing too. I was there every Sunday afternoon to prepare for the new week."

Under her watch, the middle school was early to offer computers and computer classes, a feature of the school's prescient STEM emphasis in its curriculum. Eventually, they hired a new math teacher, as well.

"After the second year, my husband said, 'Find a better teacher,'" Pieke said. "'Somebody who has more time for this.' But he really enjoyed it, and he said it was the best two years he'd ever had in teaching math."

From the UI came Alfred Hubler, who picked up teaching algebra in 1995 — a position he held for more than a decade before his death last year.

And so it was, year after year, that the school began to grow in different ways, either through enrollment or programming or a unique offering a parent could provide.

Yearbooks tell the stories — of Pieke beaming and pointing at a boxy-looking new computer, of middle schoolers laughing during an early 2000s toga party (albeit one that was more history class than "Animal House"), of robotics clubs and field trips and forum weeks.

"Home Hi" blazoned across the yearbook covers as late as 2005, before "Campus Middle School for Girls" became the official moniker.

A decade after it all began, Pieke stepped down as executive director, joining her husband on a sabbatical in Washington, D.C.

Feinberg followed suit when her husband took a sabbatical in France, and stepped down as the school's art teacher in 2006.

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How long, really, could a secular, all-girls private school last?

Now that Campus Middle School for Girls is in its 25th year of operation, those there hope for at least 25 more.

"The school population has fluctuated, but overall the trend has been toward growth," said CMS' Leanne Cunningham.

This year, 41 girls enrolled. The reasons they do vary, but the all-girls aspect draws interest from parents, just like it did 20-plus years ago. And just like back then, small class sizes remain a staple.

It was these two things combined that pushed Amy Chamley's family into enrolling their two girls.

"The idea of being able to send them to a small girls-only school for middle school was really appealing," she said. "If it hadn't been girls-only, (private school) wouldn't have been a consideration.

"I remember when we went to an open house, one of the teachers said, 'Everybody here sits in the front row.' I was like, 'Yes.' This is what I want: Just the idea of that really formative time in their development where they could really focus on developing themselves as strong women and focus on their academics and development as people ... and not have to worry about all the drama that can go along with boys and girls together."

Another plus: The all-girls aspect wasn't a religious one.

"It's a private school without a belief system attached to it. Their belief system is really empowering girls in academics," Chamley said.

The frustrations Pieke remembered being a concern when she was raising her daughter — that girls' self-esteem could plummet during middle school, that they were considered naturally "not as good" at math or science as boys, that they were spoken over in the classroom by boys — are still well-founded today.

"My older daughter, who's a sophomore, just said something about that the other day," Chamley said. "She goes to Central now and she's a little frustrated with the boys in one of her classes because they kind of take over the talking.

"I said, 'You probably notice that because you didn't have to deal with boys taking over when you were in middle school. It's different for you because you've never experienced this before.' So she's become more confident about speaking out in class."

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Judy Nolen has been teaching at the school since around 2000, after retiring from Unit 4. She taught English at Centennial High School and wasn't necessarily ready to retire, but decided to do so to take advantage of the district's offer of an early-retirement incentive.

"Frankly, I was a little hesitant to apply to teach at a private school," she said. "But then I did. The first day I taught there, I knew how to make schools better, which would be to have way more teachers than we have and smaller classes.

"Small classes, to me, are just the secret of everything. I like to say it's kind of 'the-teacher-died-and-went-to-heaven' place because I think how we do things (is the result of) really good ideas."

Having loved her career at Centennial and describing public schools as "happy places," Nolen never imagined she'd end up teaching at a private school.

"It wasn't a private school that was there to sift out people that weren't desirable," she said. "It isn't like our kids are all from wealthy families — they're not. They're from families where they really think those years for girls are very important and a lot can go wrong in those years. Let's just say, parents make incredible sacrifices to send their kids there."

Tuition costs around $10,000 (without any aid) at CMS, which last year moved into its new home on Urbana's Webber Street.

Former U.S. congressional candidate Jon Ebel's family is among those making "sacrifices," having sent two daughters through the school already and planning to send a third when she hits middle school. But neither Ebel nor his wife pushed for the girls to attend CMS, much less any private school, in the beginning.

"We didn't drive the train that ended up at CMS," he said. "Our oldest daughter knew about it and she just really liked it and said she wanted to give it a try. It was a financial stretch for us but we decided to make it."

Parent involvement at CMS isn't really negotiable; from the early Home Hi days, moms and dads have pitched in as teachers, chaperoned field trips, held the doors open for girls in the mornings.

So for the past "seven or eight years" Ebel said with a laugh, he's been a study hall proctor. But he's quick to add he's more than happy to help out the school.

"I would just say that at this particular moment that we're in as a country and society, we should really be cheering on institutions and groups that are building up the self-esteem of girls and young women and giving them the confidence to succeed and fail and experience life — affirming these girls and young women is an incredibly noble path and CMS has done an amazing job of that," he said.

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