VES’ mission to guide boys “toward full stature” broadened to encompass girls in 1986 when VES became the first boarding school in Virginia to coeducate. During the 2018-19 school year, VES celebrated three decades of co-education. Over the Founders Day and Homecoming weekend in October 2018, we honored the decision-makers, the faculty, the pioneering women and their male classmates, who in 1986, transitioned VES from an all-boys boarding school to one that offered equal opportunities for young women.
VES looked back on this landmark decision in the second year of its Dare to Imagine a Better World Dialogue
series—designed to elevate awareness and drive thought-provoking conversations about where we’ve been and where we are today as a school.The Path to Coeducation
VES founder Robert Carter Jett had six children—two of them daughters. Even as he was formulating his plan for VES, he frequently expressed concern for the education of both young men and women. He advocated for the appointment of an educational committee to actively consider how to provide college preparatory opportunities to girls as well as boys.
Nearly 80 years passed before VES undertook a preliminary study to see if VES could realistically provide that opportunity. At a time when boarding schools were wondering about their sustainability, Headmaster Charley Zimmer and his forward-thinking Board of Trustees, led by Frank Craighill III ’57, evaluated the impact of doubling their prospective market by welcoming young women into the school. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, remaining an all-boys institution meant that the school was choosing to exclude half of all potential candidates for admission. But beyond pragmatism, Headmaster Zimmer saw an opportunity for enrichment—the kind of enrichment that only comes from adding varied perspectives and voices to the conversation.
After evaluating many factors—market demand, tuition, required changes to campus and more—the proposal to coeducate came to a vote on January 12, 1985.
Craighill, VES Board Chair, made this strong appeal: "Why not take our rightful place as a leader in the Southeast and benefit from being the first boarding school to co-educate rather than some years down the road being a follower? Butch Watkins ’57, the school’s first Alumni Director, provided another influential voice. It is said that during the discussions about coeducation, Butch noted that “Daughters of VES alumni are blood,” encouraging others to recognize their “rightful place” at VES.
Mary Morris Booth, VES’s first female trustee, recounts that “When the vote came around to Bill Formwalt—an older, highly respected alumnus from the class of 1932—of course everyone looked at him to see what he was going to say, and he voted for it. As a tangible demonstration of his commitment, he established an athletic award to be given to a female student at graduation. For someone of Bill’s era, that was huge! He turned the tide, and I admired him for doing that.”
An eight-member steering committee was formed to guide the process and later, once the first group
of women arrived on campus, a team of faculty and students formed the Co-education Committee to identify opportunities and tackle issues as they arose.
In a panel discussion with our students and faculty, moderated by pioneer and current trustee Mary
Hodges George ’89, Zimmer shared, “Young women at the school meant a newly enlivened and enriched community. It is from this place that the Board voted nearly unanimously to allow girls to matriculate to VES.” With that and some significant modifications to campus prior to their arrival, in September 1986 the first 27 young women became students at VES. The boarders moved into Wyatt Dorm, earning the name “the Wyatt Women.” News crews were on hand to document their arrival and to feed the story to a curious Lynchburg community and beyond.
Continuing to Lead the Way
Our student body has grown significantly from those early days and now includes more than 250 young men and women from all over the country and the world. Each day, we live out the vision of Dr. Jett — continually striving, constantly growing, positively contributing to their communities and the world. For over 100 years, we've prepared our students for success in colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad, and we are proud of the extraordinary contributions — both professionally and philanthropically — that our alumni have made.