A purple laptop with a Ron Jon Surf Shop sticker buzzes at a constant rate of 10 email alerts per minute. A walkie- talkie in the back corner of the room office mutters something to do with the end of recess for first graders. A “Shh!” right outside the door hushes the stomping of feet and chatter as this particular line of kindergartners passes the principal office. Nancy Bernardino ‘97, with her hair tightly slicked back into a bun and an SMU lanyard hanging around her neck, remains calm, cool and collected with the new school year.
This, however, isn’t the typical back-to- school story. Solar Preparatory, an all-girls science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) school near the Knox Henderson area, opened Aug. 22. At the head of it all, Bernardino, a Hockaday alumna, hopes to make trailblazers and history-makers out of these young women.
“It’s only the second week of school, and I can already see how much these girls can offer to the world. Our job now is to nurture that potential and make sure that nobody can extinguish that light within them,” Bernardino said.
In November of 2014, when Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Mike Miles called for district principals to design the school of their dreams and to write and submit a proposal with the incentive of school district funding, Bernardino, then the head of John Quincy Adams Elementary, took on the challenge of improving education for Dallas families. Alongside a small team led by herself and current vice principal, Jennifer Turner, Bernardino sent out the letter of intent that very month and a formal proposal by January of 2015.
After less than two years of making a 60-page model proposal become reality, the school doors of what was once Bonham Elementary reopened this school year. Solar Preparatory, the rst transformation school of DISD, welcomed 198 students grades kindergarten through second grade.
“I actually have four sons so my initial thought was to open an all-boys school, but as I gained more experience in the education field, I realized the need for support to girls,” Berardino said. “When we did additional research, we then found there was a huge underrepresentation of women in STEAM fields.”
Solar Prep not only prepares the girls academically to excel in the science, technology, engineering and mathematical elds, but also focuses on the social and emotional learning. Berardino realized that the school must prepare women, often the minority entering STEM-related career fields, to persevere through struggles and help other women. The school’s guiding principles called the “Solar Six,” which includes curiosity, self- awareness, empathy, humility, leadership and grit, closely resembles Hockaday’s very own Four Cornerstones.
In the process of drafting this school, Bernardino returned to the walls of Hockaday she walked through nearly two decades ago to draw inspiration. Her team visited the Hockaday Lower School, and Head of Lower School Randall Rhodus ‘97, a classmate of Bernardino’s, o ered her thoughts on the benefits of being in an all-girls environment at a young age. Hockaday teachers also went out to Solar Prep in August to talk to their teachers about enriching girls.
“Hopefully, this is the beginning of a long-lasting partnership between Hockaday and Solar Prep, and both our teachers and students can network with one another,” Rhodus said. “I am so delighted that I not only got to know her as a classmate and friend but now as a colleague as well.”
Berardino grew up in a low-income home of East Dallas and would take a bus at 5 a.m. every morning to get to Hockaday by 9. While switching schools from a co-ed public school to Hockaday was a culture shock for Bernardino, she appreciated the welcoming and supportive environment she entered every day.
Her four years at Hockaday also showed Bernardino the success girls can find when they support and celebrate one another. When the Dallas Morning News article about Solar Preparatory was published, Bernardino was overwhelmed with the Facebook and text messages from her Hockaday classmates who were all happy that other students were going to receive the all-girls experience.
“Girls have no limits in their minds at Hockaday, they can be whoever they want to be, and that is exactly what I want Solar Prep to offer,” Bernardino said, “I want our students to feel the joy that a sisterhood, bond and lifelong friendships brings.”
Her Hockaday teachers, in particular former English teacher Pat Saxon and Upper School History teacher Steve Kramer who was also her advisor, inspired Bernardino to aspire beyond the East Dallas and even Hockaday community to whatever and whoever she wanted to be.
According to Bernardino, Kramer guides students to follow their passions and dreams. While sometimes teachers forget that kids and teenagers just want to be listened to, Kramer was always there to hear her out and give encouragement.
“Nancy always had a sort of determination that she knew what she wanted and would do. She has always had a vision and desire to help students,” Kramer said. “Solar Prep, to me, is the culmination of everything she has done with education.”
Interim Eugene McDermott Headmistress Liza Lee also got to know Bernardino throughout her four years in the Upper School.
“She was radiant, thoughtful and so full of life. I think she is going to be the best principal ever! An all-girls STEAM school is absolutely great, and it makes me so proud to see her accomplishments,” Lee said.
Bernardino, in fact, leaned toward the arts but shied away from math and science while in school since those subjects, especially geometry, proved to be difficult. However, she hopes to avoid her own high school mindset and aims to create classrooms where girls can have confidence in those areas.
Besides the unique nature of a STEAM focused curriculum, Solar Prep also offers a dual language immersion program where 70 percent of instruction is given in Spanish and 30 percent is given in English.
As the school currently extends to second grade and plans to add a grade each year until it reaches the eighth grade, instruction will be given at a 50-50 language split by the fifth grade. The goal of this program is to help native English speakers learn a second language while simultaneously strengthening native Spanish speakers’ English.
And the school also hosts economically and racially diverse students with demographics of 40 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African American and 30 percent white. 50 percent of the girls are at an economically disadvantaged level, and thus half of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
One of Bernardino’s main goals when opening the school was to allow students to interact with other girls who are all unique in their backgrounds. Through programs like the “Solar Six,” Solar Prep builds moral and civic responsibility within the students so they can be advocates for others.
“We hope to be a school that can be a model to show what happens when you intentionally build an inclusive community and bring different people together,” Bernardino said. “It has an amazing impact on not only the kids but also in return on the city and for the world.”
Back in 1913, Ela Hockaday paved the path for an all-girls education by establishing The Hockaday School for girls. Over a century later, with the opening of Solar Preparatory, Nancy Bernardino builds on Miss Hockaday’s vision but brings her own dreams to the Dallas community.
Aurelia Han – A&E Editor