Brenda Leaks, head of school at Seattle Girls' School, tells her students, "they can have a deep sense of joy because they're being challenged to do something difficult.”

Middle school is one of the toughest periods of adolescence, but Seattle Girls’ School is dedicated to developing girls’ leadership skills amid the challenges of growing up. The private school, located in Seattle’s Central District, serves girls and gender non-conforming students in grades five through eight with a mission to inspire and develop courageous leaders who think independently, learn collaboratively, work joyfully, and champion change.

“When I first came to SGS, I used to say that every day I got to heal a little piece of my inner middle school girl,” said head of school Brenda Leakes. “Because it's a community that's intentional and made to support girls as they're exploring where they are. Not too many of us get that.” 

Leakes is a passionate advocate for her students and attributes some of her own personal growth to experiences at Seattle Girls’ School over the last seven years.  

“[Our mission is] important because in middle school, our kids are really searching,” she said. “They're searching for who they are. They're searching for where and how they can contribute in their communities. And it's important for them to have a community that's designed to support them in that searching and in the eventual answers that they find.”

The school was founded by a group of parents who saw their kids struggling to find connections even in elementary school—especially their daughters. These families’ experiences were affirmed through research showing middle school-aged girls start to lose confidence in themselves, step back from experiences and begin to internalize the socially imposed gender stereotypes.

“[Parents] wanted to create a community that was going to approach educating girls differently,” said Leakes. “It was from that spirit that Seattle Girls’ School was born and it was from that spirit that we've continued to operate for the last 20 years.”

The school uses a curriculum described as “porous” in which kids have the chance to see how educational subjects connect across disciplines like mathematics, science, the arts and beyond. The school also emphasizes learning outside the classroom and fostering leadership skills that translate to deeper community involvement. 

“Our kids really do feel empowered to go on to high school and beyond and really use their voices to make change in small and large ways in their communities,” said Leakes.

Their journey into leadership begins with identity development: exploring who they are as individuals as well as the unique ways they can impact their communities. The school also emphasizes affinity spaces where students feel safe to show up as themselves and have identity-affirming conversations with each other and with adults in the community to help build confidence.

Confidence-building is what forms the foundation for leadership. “It’s hard to stand and share who you are and what you believe when you don’t have a sense of confidence in yourself,” explained Leakes.

That goes for all students, whether cisgender students who identify as girls, or gender non-conforming students who were assigned female at birth. While it might seem expected for students and staff to share their pronouns on the first day of school, SGS students and staff go above and beyond, sharing their pronouns any time they’re speaking publicly.

“Even me, as a head of school, who everyone knows, when I stand up in our community, I say, ‘Hi, my name is Brenda and I use she/her pronouns,’ because we want to make it safe and normalized that this is something that we share and communicate with each other,” said Leakes. “We've really been pushing ourselves... because we can't be a school that strives to help kids figure out who they are without providing space for them to explore this particular part of their identity.”

“The reality of gender identity is that every time we think, ‘Okay, we figured it out,’ the students are like, ‘No, you don't. You don't have it figured out.’” she said. “And then we learn something new and we continue to improve.”

Speaking up and challenging the status quo is a core value of the Seattle Girls’ School experience. The school encourages students to use their voices in many ways, from student-driven programs and political advocacy to presentations in front of their peers and entire communities.

That encouragement to speak up has an impact. “When [students] leave [SGS], what we hear from them is that they take over,” said Leakes. “One of my favorite stories was one of an alumni student at a local private school who came in complaining about how her peers never raise their hands in class and how she was always raising her hand. At SGS, everybody would have their hand up and she barely got called on. But in this new classroom that she was in, she felt like she was always getting called on because she was the only one raising her hand.”

At the school, students don’t just practice leadership themselves. They see it modeled by a diverse array of women and nonbinary leaders who demonstrate there is no perfect path to being a leader. “By having someone from the community who volunteers their time to listen to their stories, our students get a real sense of, ‘What I say matters and people care about me and they care about what I want in the world and they want to support me in getting that,’” said Leakes.

Many adults who experience traditional learning environments recall their middle school years as a difficult time in which they did not feel understood by teachers or peers, said Leakes who noted for many, it’s a time of isolation, not enjoyment.

Not at SGS. “We have a lot of fun,” said Leakes, who noted the phrase “joyful learning” in the organization’s mission statement. “We believe that our kids learn better and they connect deeper when they're actually enjoying themselves.” 

This isn’t a superficial component of learning at the school, but a reflection of its rigor. “I want to be clear: ‘Joyful’ does not mean ‘happy,’” said Leakes. “We have to talk to our students about the fact that they can have a deep sense of joy because they're being challenged to do something difficult.”