For more than 100 years, the Columbus School for Girls has prepared young women for college and careers, much of the time ensconced behind a brick wall on Broad Street in Bexley. The school has a reputation for sky-high tuition, academic rigor and being a favored institution for privileged Columbus girls. That's all true, but it's only part of the story.

For more than 100 years, the Columbus School for Girls has prepared young women for college and careers, much of the time ensconced behind a brick wall on Broad Street in Bexley. The school has a reputation for sky-high tuition, academic rigor and being a favored institution for privileged Columbus girls. That's all true, but it's only part of the story.

On one of those blustery January mornings so gray the air seems opaque, a few dozen women walked briskly through a stone entrance at the Columbus School for Girls (CSG). Shaking off the chill once inside, they were greeted by staff and guided to the school cafeteria. Students in neatly pressed tartan uniforms introduced themselves to the guests and made conversation with them, answering and asking smart questions about school and work. The gentle clinking of cups against saucers punctuated the room, which was soon humming with conversation. At the suggestion of a staff member, a student, maybe 12 years old, led one woman to a table, where they sat and continued to chat as equals, nibbling breakfast. The women in the room were not parents or even acquaintances of the girls-they are among Columbus' most influential leaders in business, politics and charitable institutions. It was the ultimate networking happy hour but with tea, muffins and tweens. Among those in attendance: Former Ohio House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, Otterbein University President Kathy Krendl, Columbus city councilwomen Priscilla Tyson and Michelle Mills, Charles Penzone Inc. president Debra Penzone, Donato's CEO Jane Grote Abell and Elfi DiBella, president and CEO of the YWCA Columbus.

When upper school students delivered remarks about their education, the women nodded approvingly. They were impressed, and you would have been too, when then-student Sarah Naguib explained why, at age 17, she founded a nonprofit to deliver laptops to Egypt (she is also a black belt in taekwondo). The audience enthusiastically applauded head of school Liza Lee, who spoke briefly but persuasively in support of all-girls education. She talked about empowerment of young women, about preparing to send them out into a man's world with tools like intelligence, boldness and creativity. Her words were unflinchingly opinionated; they might have been harrumphed by an audience of men. But this group was rapt.

If the school was looking for potential role models for students, to provide job shadows or speak in classes, they had found precisely the right audience: women who climbed to the top of their professions with grit and smarts, often without women mentors and while overcoming the everyday annoyances of gender discrimination. Single-sex education through Lee's lens seems like a wonderful world of girl power, where stereotypes are chucked out the window and each person fearlessly raises her hand.

The merits of an all-girls education can be debated-even Lee will admit it's not the right decision for everyone. But the 115-year-old CSG permeates Columbus-it graduates women who go on to be leaders in business, politics, medicine, academics. It's one of very few Columbus institutions to have the influence to bring all those women to that cafeteria on a Wednesday morning. It's a mysterious place, hiding behind its stone walls. It might be a misunderstood place, too.

Is CSG elitist? The retail price of a year's education is around $20,000. But a quarter of the students at the school receive need-based scholarships. Is it lily-white? No-31 percent of the student body is made up of "students of color," as the school terms them. Is an all-girls education even a good idea? It depends-even within feminist circles-whom you ask.

I'm asked to meet head of school Liza Lee in "The Mansion," past the courtyard with the unicorn statue. Like a lot of things about CSG, these directions are eccentric but endearing. The ivy-covered Mansion is one of several buildings on CSG's expanding campus, bounded by Broad Street and Drexel, Columbia and Powell avenues. A performing arts center is under construction, and a wellness and athletics building opened just last year.

Lee's office has a perfect view of the courtyard where girls play during recess. When the weather is nice, Lee sometimes opens French doors to the yard and lets girls roam in and out while they play. She has that mysterious quality that tells children she is a kindred spirit; when she walks into a classroom, kids run right up to her and divulge their latest stories. In return, Lee listens to them earnestly, as though no one else in the world could be more interesting. Her face paints her interest, her voice rising with her eyebrows and bright, animated eyes. Lee has long believed girls deserve to be listened to.

She both graduated from and taught at the revered all-girls Brearly School in Manhattan, alma mater of Caroline Kennedy, feminists Anne and Katie Roiphe, actresses Kyra Sedgwick and Sigourney Weaver and publishing titans Katharine Weymouth and Dorothy Schiff. She then attended an all-women's college and went on to graduate school at Columbia.

"That was my first distressing taste of co-education," she says. "Graduate professors called on the men all the time. It was very rare that they wanted to listen to a comment from a girl. Despite graduating from an all-women's college, I wasn't ready to 'lean in' yet. I wasn't confident. Then I thought, after I listened to all those idiot comments from my male colleagues, I thought, 'Yes I am,' and I started raising my hand."

To help with family finances while her husband completed medical school, Lee took a job teaching afternoon classes at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. This was when she first noticed that girls and boys learn differently, that some techniques seemed to work better with one sex than the other.

After experiencing discrimination in other settings-at one job in England she was instructed to bring her own toilet paper "because women used so much," and at another job her boss told her he planned to pay a male replacement $15,000 more than her "because he was going to be supporting a family"-the idea that the world viewed men and women differently began to crystallize for Lee.

She eventually devoted her career to all-girls education, becoming a nationally recognized expert, and in 2009 was lured out of retirement with the help of childhood friend Charlotte Kessler, whose family has a long legacy of attendance at CSG. Lee will retire (again) this summer; the new head of school Jennifer M. Ciccarelli starts in July.

Parents looking for information about single-sex education will find advice at both extremes-there are plentiful articles, books and research papers making arguments for it and against it. There are national organizations for both girls' schools and co-educational schooling.

Lee, like most advocates for single-sex education, believes girls and boys learn differently and get better educations when separated. She also believes that all-girls education plays an important role in countering a "toxic culture" for adolescent girls (when we spoke, the Miley Cyrus MTV awards hullabaloo was raging).

"We're all on the watch for that kind of cultural demoralization. I keep saying to the girls, I don't want you to have a double life. I want you to be so strong when you leave here that it's integral to you and you won't capitulate," she says.

On the other end of the spectrum are academics, child psychologists and education policymakers who find Lee's ideas about single-sex education at best outdated and at worst based on junk science about neurological differences between girls and boys. In 2011, a group of academics-all founding board members of the American Council for CoEducational Schooling-published an article in the journal Science debunking benefits of single-sex education.

The researchers found that students at all-girls schools excelled not because they were surrounded by other females, but because they tended to come from well-off families, they met academic standards when they tested into the schools and private schools had the money to spend on extras, like tutoring, to enhance students' experience. The authors also called research showing differences in girls' and boys' brains "pseudoscience" that has been refuted by more recent neuroscience.

And, maybe most damning, the researchers made the case that single-sex education institutionalizes notions of gender difference: By creating single-gender educational environments, all-girls schools signal that gender is an important part of society.

"I think parents who choose single-gender education are making a choice, a realistic choice," Lee says. "At an all-girls school, we put no limits on their expectations, and we don't put the kind of limitations on their dreams that you sometimes find in a co-ed school, even though it's not because of anything conscious."

Parents do continue to choose CSG. Founded with two students (both went to Wellesley College) in 1898, CSG today has a student body of more than 600 girls. From the beginning, it has been a college preparatory school. If a girl does not intend to go on to a college or university, CSG is not a good fit: 100 percent of each graduating class is accepted to college.

Lee is also outspoken about the socio-economic and ethnic diversity inside CSG. It's a point of pride for the staff at the school that the student body is not homogenous.

"We certainly have privileged girls here. But what we have is the full spread. It's not just some poor kids here and some rich kids there. It's everything in between," Lee says. "We have families whose parents work two jobs in order to afford us."

CSG offers only need-based financial aid; since girls test into the school, they are all deemed to be there on merit. The school gives out about $1.8 million a year in scholarships.

"We had a child who was homeless, and we have Jack Kessler's grandchildren," Lee says, referring to the prominent developer. "But what's interesting to me is the number of families for whom this is a tremendous sacrifice."

More than 25 years after they graduated from CSG, Columbus lawyer Liza Kessler still remembers classmate Sandy Kim's intelligence and critical-thinking skills. Sandy grew up to be Dr. Sandra Kim, a pediatrician whose clinical and research work has focused on inflammatory bowel disease; she recently returned to Columbus as the medical director of Nationwide Children's Hospital Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center. Kim arrived at CSG as a high school freshman, having transferred from a public school.

"It is a little bit of culture shock to be in a co-ed school where you've got the geeky ones and then you've got the cheerleaders … [At CSG], You're with women, and you realize you're no longer competing with them; you're not afraid to show that you're smart," she says.

It was a relief when appearances took a backseat to academics, she says, and her thoughts were repeated again and again in interviews with CSG graduates. Uniforms and no boys neutralized the typical adolescent emphasis on looks. Uniforms had the double duty of leveling socio-economic status. Kessler says she had no clue which students were on scholarships, and it wouldn't have mattered.

"I was judged not for how I looked or the way I dressed, but what I had to contribute intellectually," Kim says. "It was the freedom to not worry about how you looked physically, the freedom to express your ideas freely."

Laurel Beatty, daughter of former state Rep. Otto Beatty Jr. and stepdaughter of Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, left St. Catherine's Catholic school for CSG in sixth grade. She says she reveled in the religious, ethnic and cultural diversity she found at the school.

"You had Christian, Jewish, Muslim people and a lot of different ethnicities. I liked different, so I loved it," she says. That education came in handy when she ran to keep the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas judgeship, to which she was appointed in 2009.

"It's not easy to walk up to a stranger and ask them for their vote. But if you have that base of some general knowledge and appreciation for different races, religions, cultures, it's not quite so intimidating," she says.

Another factor in Beatty's win: The network of CSG alumnae in Columbus.

"I got a lot of help from classmates, whether it was placing yard signs or walking in parades with me. They threw me a fundraiser," she says. "Running for a county-wide position, it's not like you have staff who are paid. When you run county-wide, it is you and the people who love you."

Kessler, daughter of Jack and Charlotte Kessler and goddaughter of Liza Lee, her mother's school friend, is the partner-in-charge at the Columbus office of global law firm Jones Day. Her aunt and sisters attended CSG, and her nieces are there now. During an interview in her office, she pulls a framed photograph from a credenza-a group of women, all CSG graduates, smile from underneath the canopy of a golf cart. The photo was taken on a girls' getaway just a few weeks prior.

"We're very different people, doing very different things and having very different lives," Kessler says. "One of the things CSG gives you is a respect for and protection of female friendships."

All of the women interviewed say CSG had well prepared them for the world beyond high school and for college. Each of them chose a profession that can be called "male-dominated," but not one of them seems to notice.

"You don't doubt yourself. You feel like you're worthy of being at the table. You know how to maintain a conversation," says Sophia Corna, marketing manager at her family's construction firm, Corna Kokosing. "That all stems from that education, that foundation that they give you."

Liza Lee is fond of "Lean In," the bestselling feminist manifesto by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, in which she advises women to commit to making and keeping their careers a priority. Lee has shared and discussed the book with her colleagues, and she wrote a letter to the New York Times referencing it. It might be said that Lee was telling girls to "lean in" long before Sandberg put it in print.

Corna recalls a conversation she had several years ago with a former classmate's father, who was a bit dismayed at his daughter's apparent nonchalance about settling down.

"He said, 'You know I think that school made you girls a little too independent,' " Corna says with a smile. "I told him, 'We're doing our own thing, and if that happens along the way, that's great.' You learn that you're going to go out and find a career and your own path and your own future."