Twenty Years and Thousands of Lives

This week as school starts around the country, I'm reminded that twenty years ago, 56 seventh-grade girls from East Harlem unknowingly touched off an extraordinary change in the landscape of public education. When they walked through the doors of the newly established Young Women's Leadership School (TYWLS), their parents rejoiced. Their daughters would attend the first single-sex public school to open in the U.S. in more than thirty years - and they would be the first in their families to go to college.

In 1996 when we created TYWLS of East Harlem, we faced a firestorm of controversy. Two decades ago, creating a single-sex public school was considered radical. But, I knew starting a college prep public school for girls growing up in poverty was the right thing to do in an effort to correct the inequity in education. We not only made headlines, we made history.

Mellony, from our pioneer class, says it best. "The press wanted to know what it was like to be in the first all-girls' public school in New York City, and asked what we would say to detractors who said the school discriminated against boys," she recalls. "Simply put," she says, "an opportunity for a college-prep education doesn't come along every day in the middle of Spanish Harlem, a very poor neighborhood, and I was so grateful it did." Mellony graduated with a B.A. in English from Marymount and a Master's degree in Publishing from New York University. Now she is a manager at HBO. Her younger sister, Katherine, just enrolled in TYWLS.

Buoyed by the precedent we set, there are now more than one hundred all-girls and all-boys' public schools around the nation. We established five TYWLS in New York City and we replicated the TYWLS model in 13 other schools around the country, which are our national affiliates. Our newest affiliate, The Girls Leadership Academy in Wilmington, NC, which opened on August 29th, already has a waiting list. Through our network of 18 schools, we serve more than 8,000 girls nationwide. The support and leadership programs, which add to the success of our model, are central, particularly because many of our students face daunting challenges.

As TYWLS teachers report, some of our students come to school hungry and many are embarrassed about their circumstances. Some of them are living from shelter to shelter, in foster care, or dealing with domestic abuse, drugs or neighborhood violence. "Growing up in the projects there's a stigma that you're not going to make it," says a TYWLS parent, explaining that "the girls say the voices in their heads tell them you can't, you're not worthy, don't even bother."

It was the girls' compelling stories, and the fact that our inner-city young women did not have access to an all-girls' environment, that moved me to action twenty years ago. Before 1996, all-girls' schools were available only to affluent families, girls attending parochial schools, or Yeshiva girls. We knew that was wrong and unfair.

Part of the foundation of our success is that we hire full-time, highly trained college counselors to work with every girl as part of our CollegeBound Initiative (CBI) program. Just as in private schools, our CBI counselors provide intensive assistance with college selection, essays, interviews, tours, SAT test prep, financial aid, and scholarship resources. Critically, our counselors start working with the girls, as early as sixth grade, to create a college going culture. Starting early is especially important in schools where the majority of students will be the first in their families to go to college.

Our CBI counselors are also deeply knowledgeable about financial aid making it possible for students like Samantha to go Skidmore and Nichole to go to Haverford College with tuition and room and board fully covered for all four years. We have been so successful that we replicated and expanded CBI. Now we are in 35 co-ed New York City public schools serving more than 18,000 students growing up in low-income communities. Since we started CBI, our counselors have generated more than $300 million in financial aid. So often, we are moved by the sight of parents weeping with joy when they get the news that financial aid will make it possible for their child to go to college.

The work is as relevant today as it was then. A recent Pew Research Center study found that the jobless rate is three times higher for those without a college degree. The study also found that the earning gap between college degree holders and high school degree holders continues to widen.

Today, after the girls' intrepid steps at our first school in East Harlem, thousands of young women have completed our programs and transitioned into higher education. An independent evaluation shows our students enroll in college at double the rate of their peers and earn college degrees at four times the rate. We are proud that our graduates are living productive and successful adult lives. This is how we make the American Dream become a reality.

While there is still much work to be done to fight education inequality, twenty years later, our TYWLS alumnae show there is much to celebrate. Sharlim graduated from Fordham as a finance and economics major; she's with Goldman Sachs. Jeanne, also an economics major and a graduate of the College of Mount St. Vincent, is a Senior Wealth Strategy Analyst at UBS. Roxanne, with a B.A. from Smith and a J.D. from Suffolk Law School, is an attorney at Citizens Disability. Ujijji, a Cornell grad and a 2017 Master's candidate at the University of Michigan, is an architect with the Smith Group in Detroit.

Our current students are also paving the way to be the next generation of leaders. Normanique is at Gettysburg College on a prestigious American Physiological Society Fellowship studying biology. Salonee and Gargi are attending Notre Dame and Ashley is a Freshman at Cornell University. Lisbeth is at Ithaca College studying journalism and her sister is an incoming sixth-grader at TYWLS.

I am both proud and humbled that we have hundreds of similar success stories about our young women. To become a greater nation, we must learn from what we know. We know that when public school systems adopt and nurture a proven model, all things are possible.