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The Hamlin School - a place of tradition and innovation

The Hamlin School on Broadway Street in Pacific Heights

Callie Jones is showing me how to 3-D print a tiny yellow chess piece, after designing it herself on a computer. It’s her second day in the 3-D printing club and she’s already a pro.

“So the printer’s like putting little dots on top of little dots on top of little dots, and so when the dots hit each other, they start to dry, and so it just starts to build up and up and up until you make the figure that it’s printing,” she explains.

Jones is a sixth grader at The Hamlin School - one of the oldest K-8 girls’ schools in San Francisco. But you can almost forget that history, given the high-tech toys these girls get to play with.

This tiny 3-D printer tucked away behind wooden doors, in this ornate, historical mansion, symbolizes how this 150-year old girls’ school has transformed over the past two centuries. It has managed to embrace the future while keeping with tradition.

Lisa Aquino is Hamlin’s Admissions Officer. She’s also a graduate and parent of an alumna who graduated last year. On our tour of the school’s three buildings, we peek into biology labs, rooftop courts with stunning views of the bay, dance studios, and old living rooms that now house books and desks.

The school has kept many of the mansion’s original 19th century Edwardian touches - high ceilings with wood moldings, chandeliers and dozens of staircases. Aquino says there are at least 11, maybe 13.

“Of course we have elevators, too, but our girls have very strong hearts and strong legs,” she says as we continue up the stairs to meet Wanda Holland Greene, the Head of School.

“A lot of people associate the Hamlin School of today with this building on Broadway, one of the beautiful Flood mansions, when in fact Hamlin is a key concept in many ways as much as it is a school,” Holland Greene says.

A concept and core philosophy that Holland Greene says has remained the same since the 1890s, even though the school itself has changed over the years. The philosophy can be traced back to the school’s founder, Sarah Dix Hamlin.

“She was an audacious woman -- she was one of the first women to attend the university of Michigan, and she could be found even as a young girl, debating political issues of the time, with men, thinking about women’s rights and our place in the world,” Holland Greene says.

After traveling and teaching around the world, Sarah Dix Hamlin moved to the West Coast. She decided that she would set up her school here in California and she acquired the Van Ness Seminary, which dates back to 1863. At the time, Hamlin said, “I will establish a place for girls and women to be educated to meet the challenges of their time.”

The school has since moved buildings, and the challenges have also changed. For example, today, only one in seven engineers are female, and women hold less than a third of computer science jobs. So Hamlin has a huge focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. It recently added the 3-D printing club, robotics in second grade, and coding class in fifth grade.

“Our youngest girls at Hamlin walk into their science classroom and they put on a lab coat because they need to imagine themselves as a doctor and as a person who can program robots,” says Holland Greene.

However, these opportunities come at a cost. Hamlin’s tuition is almost $30,000 a year. That’s almost three times as much as California spends per student in the public school system. Holland Greene acknowledges that this is a huge challenge for Hamlin in terms of access and diversity.

“By definition a tuition-charging school is going to slice a certain part of the population and become exclusive,” she admits. “So the question is how do you embrace that reality and then work very hard to make sure that you don't also become self-absorbed and separate from the world in which you reside?”

So over the past six years as Head of School, Holland Greene increased outreach to lower income students. Currently, Holland Greene says 20 percent of Hamlin families get scholarships, that over 40 percent of students at Hamlin are not white, and almost half of the new kindergarten class are girls of color.

Holland Greene says what keeps her hopeful is the school’s ability to stay true to Sarah Dix Hamlin’s vision. The girls are encouraged to seek joy in learning and give back to their community, wherever it may be.

One morning I join the students on a field trip to a nearby park. Through games the students learn about water molecules, drought-resistant plants and how they can conserve water at home. During a break, fourth grader Virginia Bonnie tells me what she loves about her school.

“I just think there’s such a variety of things you learn, that there’s always something new and we just learn so much and it’s all in fun way, like we have activities where we learn and we don’t even notice it,” she says.

Learning without even noticing it - a sign of progress for girls’ education and something the Hamlin School will strive to bring to girls for the next 150 years.

This piece originally aired in September 2014.