Starting With Cardigan
Girls at Cardigan? Not during the traditional academic year. But during Cardigan’s Summer Session, since 1969, girls have been learning and growing right alongside the boys. For many of them, the School has been a catalyst for success—for self-confidence, self-advocacy, and self-awareness.
When Kay De Simone was growing up in the Dominican Republic, her parents made sure she took advantage of as many educational opportunities as possible, including participation in a U.S. exchange program so that she could learn English. Fast forward through several decades, Ms. De Simone moved to the US in 1998, started a family, and continued the tradition, making education a priority for her three daughters, Isabella, Gabriella, and Sofia.
But since she had obtained her education overseas, Ms. De Simone didn’t know about many of the options available in the United States. The New York City gifted and talented programs, parochial schools, and enrichment activities were all important opportunities, but it wasn’t until former Cardigan parent Phyllis Holland-Alleyne P’12 shared her knowledge about independent schools and told her about Cardigan that Ms. De Simone discovered another path forward. She filled out an application for Cardigan’s Summer Session that same year for Isabella.
Isabella first attended in 2007. “She arrived as a hesitant New York inner-city girl with a family that knew next to nothing about independent schools,” says Ms. De Simone. “Her attendance at Cardigan was a huge leap of faith on her part and ours.”
“It was so different from our routine in Queens,” recalls Isabella. “I struggled with eating the food offered in the dining hall and the ‘where are you from/really from’ inquiries. But for the first time, I met people from all over and it gave me a broad view of the world.” She recalls hiking Mount Cardigan for the first time and the support her teachers provided her as she learned to navigate the rigorous academics and further develop her ability to advocate for herself.
“Many times families take themselves out of these opportunities by following the guidelines that only the special and the gifted are worthy of investment and opportunities,” says Ms. De Simone. “If people had read my kids' report cards from their CMS summer early years or initial transition to prep school, they would have not expected their level of current achievement and happiness. They would have been in the discounted pile for sure…Enough people (and institutions) matched our hard work and determination and here we are today. It took a mighty village to help me raise my girls.”
“She arrived as a hesitant New York inner-city girl with a family that knew next to nothing about independent schools. Her attendance at Cardigan was a huge leap of faith on her part and ours.”Kay De Simone
Isabella went on to attend Suffield Academy and New York University Tandon School of Engineering, where she graduated this past spring and was awarded the Dr. Bernadette W. Penceal Community Service Award. IN the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 spread quickly throughout the United States, Ms. De Simone reported that Isabella began work as a financial analyst for Bank of America and agreed to start two months early to help the bank manage the disbursement of small business loans through the CARES Act.
An interesting thing to note about the De Simone sisters is that while they all agree that Cardigan played a huge role in their lives, for each its role was very different. Take Gabriella, for example, who was the second sister to attend Cardigan. For her, homesickness hit pretty hard, but she found comfort in her teachers and discovered a love for the arts.
“I remember the art teacher encouraging me,” says Gabriella. “Even when I would make a mistake, she would encourage me to continue, helping me to turn my art projects into things I was proud of.” For her, lessons in perseverance and a belief in self were solidified as she not only learned to create pots out of lumps of clay but also learned to swim, braving the cool morning temperatures of Canaan Street Lake consistently enough to earn Polar Bear bragging rights. The summer of nurturing also ignited in her the courage to try rocket building, helped her improve her math skills, and developed her love for reading. Gabriella also went on to Suffield Academy and is now a sophomore at the Villanova School of Business, ending 2020 with a 3.7 GPA and a newfound love for analytics.
For the youngest sister, Sofia, the journey continues. After attending Cardigan’s Summer Session for four years, she signed up for a fifth in 2020. When the pandemic canceled all of Cardigan’s on-campus programs, Sofia’s summer plans instead included New York University’s STEM program online. The pandemic couldn’t, however, keep her from reaching out to her Cardigan friends with whom she has kept in touch through group chats and Zoom meetings. She hopes to return to Cardigan in the future, perhaps as a camper, but she also hopes to give back to Cardigan through the leadership program when she is old enough.
“Cardigan has taught me to be more independent,” says Sofia, who is attending Rumsey Hall School this fall as a fifth form student.
Gabriella agrees, recalling one summer visit to Cardigan to see her sister: “I remember seeing Sofia in her dorm room and thinking we’d come full circle. Watching her with her friends made me realize how grown up she is and how CMS created a safe space for her to do that.”
“Our story and the myriad of defacto miracles we have received are so unlikely that most days move me to quiet happy tears,” says Ms. De Simone. “It gives me chills because I know we are not special and that our journey can be replicated and can change so many families and the world at large.”
“I remember seeing Sofia in her dorm room and thinking we’d come full circle. Watching her with her friends made me realize how grown up she is and how CMS created a safe space for her to do that.”Gabriella De Simone
Not special? That’s questionable. Ms. De Simone always tells her girls that they don’t have to be gifted, just brave. And that bravery has certainly paid off—not just for the three girls but for their mom, who has been attending school right alongside her children and earned a master’s degree in social work in 2015; she is now a psychotherapist with a specialization in complex trauma and the stressors of high achievers. As a family they understand what it means to be engaged and take full advantage of every opportunity that life offers.
Admittedly Cardigan’s Summer Session does not offer advanced degrees, and its students do not have job offers waiting for them when they depart in August. But they do leave with strong academic skills and the confidence to pursue a rigorous education that one day will lead, if they so choose, to advanced degrees and lives of consequence. It’s an opportunity that’s not just open to boys but girls as well, if they are brave enough to accept the challenge.