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The Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem Celebrates 10th Anniversary
Overcoming all Odds, Girls Persevere and Succeed

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Ten bubbly teenage girls, all wearing neatly starched blue and white uniforms, spent a recent August afternoon in their college counselor’s office reminiscing about their high school experiences. “All the gifts that were within you are manifested here,” reflected Lydia, an aspiring drama student and songwriter who’ll be attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts this month. Jahleese, who is bound for Smith College, chimed in, “Every person who comes into this school leaves a better person. If you do something good, you own it. If you do something bad, you say ‘I messed up’ and move on. I can honestly say that I like who I am right now!” “We love you too!” called out the other nine girls.

Though this scene may not seem unusual, what is special about these girls, all of them Latina or African American, is that 75 percent live in East Harlem and 25 percent in the Boroughs, and all come from households that are predominately at or below the poverty line. They are all students at The Young Women’s Leadership School (TYWLS), a public school in East Harlem, and they have defied all odds for inner city public school students: 100 percent of TYWLS students met all their Regents requirements in 2006, 100 percent graduated from high school, and 100 percent will go on to college, many with full scholarships. Dalibell, a rising junior who spent the summer studying engineering at Smith, summed it up best: “We’re a public school with a private school feel.”

The brainchild of Ann Rubenstein Tisch, a former NBC News correspondent who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, TYWLS turned conventional wisdom on its head in 1996 by offering a single-sex, college prep education in a small public school setting (there are now 420 students enrolled in Grades 7-12). Tisch got the idea for the school in the 1980’s when she was on a news assignment at an inner city high school in Milwaukee that had opened a day care center for its teen mothers. “I asked one of the moms, who was only 15 years old, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ and another of the girls started crying. I knew at that second that they knew they were stuck…And I remember saying to myself, ‘We’re not doing enough for these girls.’”

From the beginning, Tisch favored the idea of a single-sex institution: “I thought that if these girls were offered a totally different path, like the path that is offered to girls in private schools, or Catholic girls in parochial schools, or Yeshiva girls, doesn’t it figure that because single-sex education has become so successful in those communities, it would also work in inner cities?” Upon relocating to New York City in the late 1980’s, Tisch set out to make her then-controversial idea of “bringing single-sex education back into the public school landscape” a reality, meeting with former NYC schools chancellor Ray Cortines, lobbying the school board, and ultimately opening the doors of her visionary school on East 106th Street in 1996.

Tisch established the Young Women’s Leadership Foundation in 1998 that pays for a dedicated college counselor, Chris Farmer, whose sole job is to guide YWLS students through the college admissions process. “From seventh grade on, we create a culture of expectation. It’s not if you are going to college, but where you are going,” explained Farmer. Most students visit between six and eight college campuses before making their final decision. “Senior year, I came in every day to see Chris. I had so many college acceptances I didn’t know how to choose,” recalled Alendi, who was accepted to Skidmore, Smith, and the University of San Francisco but opted to attend Gettysburg College. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college,” she added proudly. (TYWL Foundation now funds The CollegeBound program of New York that replicates TYWLS’ model by placing full-time college counselors in five co-ed public inner city schools, serving 2800 students and bringing in a total of $5.1 million in financial assistance last year.)

In addition to college counseling, TYWL Foundation has been instrumental in organizing many partnerships with organizations and institutions which range from The Theater Development Fund and the Museum of Natural History to Skidmore and Smith for TYWLS students: “I wanted a year-round school but this was the next best thing,” explained Tisch. Many girls spend their summers studying on college campuses or doing science research at hospitals like Sloan Kettering. A rising senior named Amor spent the summer working in a hospital upstate. “I want to be a physicia assistant,” she said effusively. “We want you to be a doctor, not a physician assistant,” Tisch shot back with a twinkle in her eye. “Go for the big one!”

In addition to the rich panoply of summer options available to YWLS students, there are literally hundreds of enrichment opportunities offered during the school year. Among numerous other outings, last year’s eighth graders traveled to Washington, DC to meet with Senator Hillary Clinton, explore museums, and view the Capitol and Supreme Court. There were theater outings to Broadway, Spanish classes to Ballet Hispanico, motivational speakers (including Bette Midler and model Imam), and SAT preparation courses offered by Barnard College’s Let’s Get Ready program.

For teachers, YWLS offers “travel-ships” (scholarship monies for travel), allowing them to enhance their curricula through first-hand explorations. Drew Higginbotham, Interim Acting Principal who began as a student teacher and later taught history, recently visited archeological sites and museums in Mexico and Cuba on such a travel-ship. “There are some things you just can’t learn out of a book,” noted Higginbotham.

If there is any chink in the impenetrable TYWLS armor, it’s that there are simply not enough spots to meet the community’s demand. Last year, YWLS offered only three ninth grade openings for 2100 applicants. Tisch, who oversees five other single-sex schools (one in Chicago, one in Philadelphia, and three others in Queens and the Bronx), explained regretfully, “We’d love to build hundreds of these schools. We’re only inhibited by space and time.”

As YWLS prepares to celebrate its ten year anniversary this month with star-studded events in NYC (benefit committee members include the likes of Connie Chung, Cathleen Black, Katie Couric, Ann Moore and Paula Zahn), Tisch reflected on the school’s extraordinary success and challenges for the future: “This model is viable, it’s important, and it should be made available to as many inner city girls who would like it.” Then, with customary modesty and a touch of Midwestern sincerity, she added: “A large hunk of the credit for the success of this school goes to the girls. The school would have no legs if it were not for the amazing efforts of these students who have made it a first rate school.”#



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