The Maine Girls’ Academy in Portland announced Thursday that it will close this month, stunning students, parents and alumnae.

The state’s only private, all-girls school shared the news on its website, saying the last day of operations will be July 15.

“This difficult and sad decision was made necessary by lower enrollment and revenue than would be needed to operate the school throughout the upcoming school year,” the announcement states.

Messages left for the head of school and on the general office line were not returned Thursday. However, the school community reacted to the news with shock, sadness and confusion, and one woman launched a GoFundMe campaign with a $1 million goal in hopes of saving the school.

“Affording private school for most everybody is a sacrifice, and I made that sacrifice because I really deeply believe in what an all-girls education does for a young girl,” said Cara Biddings, a 1996 graduate and the parent of a current student. “If the school closes, I don’t have that option anywhere else in the state.”

The Sisters of Mercy founded the academy as Catherine McAuley High School in 1969. In 2015, it dropped its affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church, citing declining enrollment and the nuns’ plan to sell the Portland campus. At the time, enrollment had dropped from 200 to 120 students in a decade. Still, it adopted its new name and continued as an independent organization. The Forecaster reported in November that it would expand to include seventh- and eighth- grade students in the fall.


“The girls and their future have always been our top priority,” Heidi Osborn, chairperson of the board of trustees, said in the official announcement. “We deeply thank our families and donors for the faith they have had in our mission and for their commitment to the girls and their school. We continue to believe that an all-girls school and learning environment is important and beneficial for girls and our communities.”

It was not clear in the announcement what would happen to ongoing summer programs or the school building itself.

Due to the timing of the closure, the school has worked with North Yarmouth Academy to arrange “an attractive transition option” for the next school year, according to the announcement. North Yarmouth Academy will accept current and incoming Maine Girls’ Academy students, and it will honor each student’s 2018-19 enrollment agreement and family contribution toward tuition.

Ben Jackson, the head of school at North Yarmouth Academy, said he already has heard from the families of some Maine Girls’ Academy students. Enrollment there had dropped to 90 students, he said.

“It’s a loss for education and really the state of Maine,” Jackson said. “Our empathy is with everyone at the Maine Girls’ Academy. What we have offered to do is to really find a path to offer a seamless transition for the girls.”

Jackson said the administration at the Maine Girls’ Academy had reached out to talk about collaborating on some curriculum offered at North Yarmouth Academy, like high-level math and foreign language classes. Then, within the last week, they reached out with the news of the closure, asking if North Yarmouth Academy could help.


“Really, Maine Girls’ Academy is a mission that is so worth preserving,” Jackson said. “Never has it been more important to have programs that empower young women as leaders, and we really felt it was worth preserving in some way.”

Tuition for the 2018-19 school year at the Maine Girls’ Academy was set at $19,500. Tuition at North Yarmouth Academy for ninth through twelfth graders next year is $29,100, and slightly less for middle school students. Beyond the upcoming school year, Jackson said former Maine Girls’ Academy students would have to go through North Yarmouth Academy’s financial aid process.

“This is not a situation where we want to tell them something one year and change course on them in future years,” Jackson said.

In Topsham, Kristen Dow had not yet decided what to do for her daughters. One just finished her freshman year at the Maine Girls’ Academy, and the other planned to start seventh grade there in the fall. Dow, now 39 and working in public health, graduated from the school in 1997. In her mind, it was never a question that her daughters would attend the school.

“She soared academically,” Dow said of her older daughter. “This was someone who struggled with English in middle school and elementary school, and then she read ‘The Odyssey’ and Shakespeare in freshman English. She grew and made the honor roll.”

Dow was glad to hear about the option for the girls to attend North Yarmouth Academy, but she wasn’t sure what the family’s next steps would be.


“They are devastated,” she said of her daughters. “There’s been a lot of tears in our house.”

Dow said she helped organize a spring auction that was a major fundraiser for the school, but never heard about the danger of shutting down.

“I hadn’t seen anything that it was that dire of a situation,” she said.

Emily Ryder, who graduated from the Maine Girls’ Academy in 2000, said she had already seen growth in her daughter Bella after her freshman year at the school. But North Yarmouth Academy is too far from their home in Buxton, so her daughter will likely attend Bonny Eagle High School.

“I just feel that Catherine McAuley shaped me to be a strong independent woman,” said Ryder, 36, an office manager. “That’s what I was so looking forward to my daughter becoming. I feel like she will still be a strong woman, but I’m just devastated.”

Bella Ryder, 15, said her class had just 16 students in it. They had a group text message that they were using Thursday to discuss the news, she said.


“We were pretty close,” she said.

The announcement even shocked employees like athletic director Joe Kilmartin, who would have entered his 40th year in that role this fall.

“I know it had been in the works, but it caught me off guard,” Kilmartin said.

Allie Clement, a former basketball player who led her team to four consecutive Class A state titles, called the school’s decision “heartbreaking.” She graduated in 2014.

“I never really thought it would go out of business,” she said. “Everyone would say, ‘There aren’t a lot of students going there, they don’t have that much money, they’re going to close, right?’ And I would say, ‘No, people love the school, they get a lot of donations.’ It’s just so sad.”

Her father described it as “the end of a chapter.”


“We loved it and we’re grateful for the role the institution played for our girls,” Brian Clement said. “I used to tell people that when I dropped my kids off there, it was like I was dropping them off at their grandmother’s house. It had a wholesome, kind, warm feeling.”

Bridget Weisser said her own class in 1982 had only 57 students. So when her daughter Emily graduated this year in a class of 24, Weisser said she didn’t see the small size as troublesome.

Even during the transition from Catherine McAuley High School to the Maine Girls’ Academy, Weisser said her daughter never doubted her decision to attend there. She will attend Providence College in Rhode Island this fall.

“It gave me the strength to stand up for my beliefs and be strong and forge my own way,” said Weisser, 54, a nurse at Maine Medical Center. “It empowers us to be women of the future, and I can see that in my daughter.”

Biddings, an attorney in South Portland, wanted her daughter, Zahria McLean, to learn in an all-girls school like she did.

“You’re in a place where girls run everything,” said Biddings, 40. “So you learn to really trust the input and the opinions of women and girls, and that matters when you go on in life. At the same time, you’re developing confidence in your own voice because there’s people taking you seriously all the time.”

McLean, 15 and a rising junior active in sports, called her mom crying when she heard the news. So Biddings launched the GoFundMe campaign to show the school the level of support in the community. The closure came out of the blue, Biddings said, and she wanted to at least try to turn it around. The campaign had raised nearly $1,830 by 11 p.m. Thursday.

“We did not get a warning shot on that,” she said. “I think before you move with such a huge decision, you’ve got to give your community the chance to respond to that.”

Citing low enrollment and a lack of revenue, Maine Girls’ Academy is closing for good. (Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald)

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