Education Lifestyle

Spotlight On: Partnership for Appalachian Girls Education

By Emma Castleberry

Partnership for Appalachian Girls Education (PAGE) is a Madison County nonprofit program committed to offering meaningful learning opportunities for girls in order to help them achieve a bright and impactful future. “This is a big-picture mission that goes beyond just getting girls into college,” says program director Maia Surdam. “Our projects have specific themes, like storytelling, oral history or STEAM, but through these experiences we aim to help girls gain confidence in themselves, learn how to be good stewards of the environment and appreciate the richness and diversity of their local, regional and global communities.”

PAGE began as a summer program in 2010, during which nine girls entering the sixth grade completed a Digital Storytelling project. In 2012, a cohort of 20 girls traveled to Duke University for a three-night campus immersion experience. By its third year, PAGE had participants in 6th, 7th and 8th grades, requiring two separate summer programs. The steady growth continued, with more girls participating in both the middle and high school programs each year, and many returning to volunteer as college interns.

PAGE’s present offerings go far beyond the initial summer program, including a food program that partners with local farmers; an oral history project rooted in the ancient Appalachian tradition of storytelling; a literature program that grew out of PAGE book clubs; and PageLabs, a collaborative learning experience that integrates STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) with the arts and humanities. “We also launched an After School Program in the fall of 2021 at Madison Middle School,” says Surdam. “Based on our students’ feedback, we now hold that for 12 weeks in the fall and another 12 weeks in the spring. We do an assortment of hands-on activities that allow students to ‘explore our own backyard,’ including the kitchen, the garden, the orchard, the stream and the forest.”

PAGE was founded by Deborah Hicks-Rogoff, who grew up in a working-class family in the Western North Carolina mountains. At 17, she was offered admissions to a local two-year college with all costs covered by a series of scholarships. After earning her doctorate in education at Harvard University, she returned to her homeland to alleviate some of the difficulty faced by young girls in rural Appalachia. “Some girls face economic insecurity that has endured across generations in rural working families,” says Hicks-Rogoff. “For other girls, their geographic isolation has been a challenge. Some girls served by PAGE face long bus rides to school each day, in the most extreme cases over an hour one way over winding mountain roads.” These challenges were magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit rural communities especially hard because of the lack of access to virtual learning.

During the pandemic lockdown months, PAGE reorganized as an independent nonprofit organization. “One of the things that the pandemic taught us as an organization is that we would need to be nimble, creative and flexible if we were going to be able to continue our work with girls in Appalachia,” says Surdam. “In order to fully make our own decisions about the best way to proceed with our work, we decided to form our own 501(c)3.” This change firmly rooted PAGE in Appalachian North Carolina and allowed the organization to expand its partnerships. It also resulted in some powerful changes in the leadership team and more year-round staff, thus strengthening PAGE’s connection to the community. “For example, we are working more closely with the counseling team at Madison Middle School to help us recruit girls who would benefit the most from PAGE,” says Surdam.

Maria McDaris, a homeschooled student living in Madison County, started with PAGE in 6th grade. Now 16, she’s a part of the organization’s High School Program. McDaris’ digital storytelling project, which she completed last year, examines her search for a voice through the debate team and her hopes that she will learn to be more confident in expressing herself. She’s been involved in the Heritage Garden PageLab, where girls learn about plant science, soils and growing traditions in a pop-up garden classroom, and she’s also a participant in the PAGE College Pathways program. “I learned stuff about college to help me prepare, things I didn’t know I needed, like a resume,” she says. “In each one you have something different to learn. It’s really helped me.” McDaris isn’t sure where she wants to attend college yet, but she wants to become a rehab nurse, simply because she loves helping people.

“PAGE was founded with the belief that investing in world-class education for girls in WNC can be life-changing for girls who have the potential to become our region’s next young women leaders,” says Hicks-Rogoff. “Through inspiring education and our sustained, long-term support, our goal is to help each girl we serve achieve her full potential and her desired future. Investments in education for girls, we believe, are investments in families and communities in WNC.”

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