All-boys boarding institute The Kiski School is set to open its classrooms to a crowd alien to its 136-year history: girls.
The Saltsburg school announced on Thursday that, come the fall 2024 semester, it will shift to coeducation to address declining enrollment and financial challenges.
“It’s a day with a lot of optimism for Kiski because we know we’re on a path for growth and success, but it’s also very emotional for many of us faculty and staff and alums as we say goodbye to this all-boys model we’ve known and loved,” says Christopher Brueningsen, the head of The Kiski School.
The Covid pandemic “clobbered” Kiski, Brueningsen adds. Lockdowns and travel suspensions stinted enrollment from international students, and the need for financial aid domestically increased. Brueningsen says that over the last decade, enrollment at all-boys schools nationwide has decreased 20%.
Brueningsen says parents used to choose where their kids went to school; now, student input is more heavily weighed.
“Families will visit schools, kids will apply, they get into however many schools, and the family says, ‘We’re good with these three schools, you pick which one of those you want to go to,’” Brueningsen says. “We’re likely in the finalist group with a couple of other co-ed schools, and a lot of boys will say, ‘I’m not really familiar with this all-boys thing. I think I’m going to pick coed.’”
Kiski currently has 190 boys enrolled across the four high school classes. Brueningsen says enrollment has been maintained through massive fundraising efforts to “the tune of about $2 million per year for the last few years.”
“It’s become clear that as a business model, that’s not sustainable, and that’s really what informed the decision and the unanimous vote by the board to start enrolling girls,” Brueningsen says. “Even though it was motivated by looking at our financial model, we’re really excited about welcoming girls and opening up a Kiski education to them.”
Kiski wants to introduce an initial cohort of 25 girls in the fall of 2024. It eventually hopes to grow the entire student population to 225, with an even gender split.
Physically, Kiski is already prepared for the transition to coeducation. Over the past 20 years, buildings across campus — from dorms to gym locker rooms to restrooms — have been updated to include spaces for girls to accommodate co-ed summer programs and visits from other co-ed schools for sporting competitions.
Brueningsen says that teachers will also undergo professional development for teaching girls, as they have done for boys, and the school will hire a “Dean of Girls.” Currently, women make up approximately 35% of Kiski’s faculty and staff, according to Brueningsen.
The Kiski School was founded by Andrew W. Wilson — cousin to Woodrow Wilson — in 1888 with the ambition of “academic rigor in the classroom and healthy competition on the athletic field,” the school’s website reads. Its graduates include zoologist Jack Hanna, actor David Conrad and Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bob Mathias.
Two days ahead of the announcement, Matt Marcenelle, vice chairman of the Friends of Kiski Prep Foundation, wrote to NEXTpittsburgh with preemptive concern that the school had come to a decision on switching to a co-ed model without consulting alumni.
“The Friends of Kiski Prep Foundation’s position is that the alumni would have appreciated and deserved the right to know about this prior to any change in mission and would have also welcomed the opportunity to ‘weigh in’ on such a dramatic alteration of the school prior to that happening; we were not,” Marcenelle writes. “We also feel that the school should remain true to its original documents established by Dr. Wilson in 1888.”
Marcenelle continues that — as of Oct. 3 — neither Kiski’s board of directors nor administration was providing a clear indication of why the school was making the change.
In June, Kiski’s board issued a letter saying co-education was being considered by the school’s enrollment task force. Brueningsen says the feedback has been predictably mixed.
“We’ve had some people who said, ‘I understand the change, and if Kiski does go co-ed, I’d be really proud to send my daughter or granddaughters to Kiski,’ and then we’ve had others who are, you know, understandably struggling with the idea of Kiski as not an all-boys school,” Brueningsen says.
“We’ve listened to everybody’s opinion, and we’re determined to launch a coed version of Kiski that’s going to make all of our graduates proud.”