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The Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem
Students at The Young Women’s Leadership School in New York. Credit: The Young Woman's Leadership School

As we continue to identify ways to break down barriers to opportunity and close the college access gap, we can look to an education model that took shape twenty years ago with 56 girls in East Harlem.

When the seventh-graders walked through the doors of the newly formed public Young Women’s Leadership School, their parents rejoiced knowing that their daughters would have the kind of high quality college prep education typically accessible only to middle-class and affluent families.

Yet, as with so many moments of progress, there was a backlash. Headlines were made when civil rights groups filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights charging that the school’s single-sex public school status violated federal laws. Nineteen years later the complaint was dismissed. However, while it was winding its way through the backlog of the Office of Civil Rights, the school grew in magnitude and impact – and set a precedent to make it possible to open all-boys’ public schools, such as the Eagle Academy.

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Education reformers Ann and Andrew Tisch, established the East Harlem school as a way to offer low-income families a choice. It was the city’s first single-sex public school to open in more than 30 years. The Tisches’ idea for the school was sparked by research demonstrating that girls learn better, particularly in math and science, when they are in an all-girl environment. Moreover, they were committed by their belief that higher education can serve as a path out of poverty. This principle motivated them to use their clout and conviction to work intently with the New York City Department of Education to establish the school. I am on the board of the school’s parent organization.

Most students will be the first in their family to go to college

The school has a rigorous academic environment where students are challenged to think critically and are exposed to a wide array of electives. In many ways, it is similar to the kind of environment present in many private academies. It offers girls intensive learning and leadership opportunities, in and outside of the classroom. The schools’ four pillars emphasize leadership, college readiness, STEM, and health and wellness.

The success of the East Harlem school led to the establishment of four additional Young Women’s Leadership Schools in New York City.  Compared to their peers, who graduate high school at a rate of 64 percent, students at Young Women’s Leadership have a 95 percent high school graduation rate.

Girls have the opportunity to develop their minds and flex their leadership muscles through internships and programs like Young Women’s Leadership School Explorers, where girls have created award winning apps that have been recognized by MIT’s Dream it, Code it, Win it project.

A collaborative effort with the New York City Department of Education, foundations and individual donors, makes it possible for every school to hire a full-time, expertly trained college counselor. Akin to the best private and middle-class public schools, the college counselors help the girls with college selection, interviews, essays, tours, SAT test prep, financial aid, scholarship resources, and anything else needed to identify and secure the best post-secondary fit.

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The Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem
Pedro Noguera

This June, graduates of all the schools are on their way to college, just as the majority has been since the first school opened in 1996. Most students will be the first in their family to go to college, and many will enroll at some of the nation’s most elite schools.

The schools’ graduates earn Bachelor’s degrees at four times the rate of their peers. Their example has sparked interest nationwide and blazed a trail for single-sex public education. Today, the schools has 13 affiliates across the country and a host of other all-girls public schools based on their approach. From 56 girls in East Harlem, two decades later this school’s network reaches nearly 8,000 girls. Unlike private or parochial institutions, the schools are public and free.

The demand from parents who seek better opportunities for their daughters is high: The newest affiliate, in Wilmington, North Carolina, starts up in September with 100 girls and more than 25 on the waiting list.

Affordable and proven solutions within the public school system are a means of forging a path to educational equity and opportunity. According to the University of Pennsylvania and the Pell Institute, students from the lowest quarter of the income bracket – households that earn less than $35,000 – represent just 10 percent of college degrees awarded.

Clearly, we don’t have time to wait. We must learn from successful schools that promote opportunity and social mobility. Education can play a role in breaking the cycle of poverty if we utilize strategies like those developed at TWLS, which have proven to be effective.

Dr. Pedro Noguera is a distinguished professor of education at UCLA and the Director of the Center for the Study of School Transformation.

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