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They Can't Do That!!!...Can They?

Story and Photos by Danya Steele


Do me a favor. Say "public school." Think "New York." What comes to mind? Does the visual of plush classroom sofas, walls adorned with framed artwork, communal tables instead of desks, or a bird's eye view of Central Park strike a cord? How about small class sizes? Uniforms? Or better yet -- how about a classroom filled with...all...girls? That's right. Public school -- New York City -- HARLEM. Does ANY of this sound familiar?

Beaconing in an educational system notorious for its overstuffed classrooms and understuffed budget, The Young Women's Leadership School in East Harlem is a prime example of what it is to be victorious. From its very origin in 1996, the middle through high YWLS (Young Women's Leadership School) has incited controversy and adversarial protest from its mere concept: a nurturing, single sexed public school for inner-city young women.

Organizations like NYC-NOW (New York City - National Organization for [predominately white] Women ) and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) have, from day one, vigorously fought for the demise of a school with bragging rights of a 100% graduation/college acceptance rate. Apparently, the fact that public resources can be exclusively used to educate a small population of young, inner-city women unnerves some people. Ah well -- it'll obviously take more than a legion of stagnant antagonists to cease this school's success.

This past June, YWLS was delighted to present to the world its first ever graduating class, a grand tally of 32 girls -- every single one accepted and enrolled into a four-year college, with only a course deviation of one girl, who opted to go into the Air Force instead. Eighteen of them have received full-tuition scholarships. Of the graduating class, 90 percent are the first generation in their families to have ever enlisted into a university, 25 percent are immigrants, and almost three quarters live below the poverty line. "Despite disadvantages like poverty, the girls at the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem have amassed an impressive record." says the New York Times,* as New York City school chancellor Harold Levy has said that YWLS "outshone everyone's expectations."

Indeed this school has outshone expectation, and much of that outshining is due to the vision of one woman -- Ann Rubenstein Tisch. A former NBC correspondent, Tisch was first roused to the vehement need for educational school reformation in 1985, after an interview with a despondent teenaged mother. It was this interview that made it arrantly clear to Tisch that public schools weren't really doing their jobs. She vowed that she'd come back to the issue one day.

Some years later, Tisch eventually met and married into money, as her husband's family owns the Loews Corporation. She deplored being called a socialite by press, and though surrounded by luxury and leisure, Tisch still had the innate passion towards improving the public school system in New York City. In 1993, she completely quit her on-air job and devoted her time towards building the foundation for a public all-girls school that would center on math and science. At the time, there was only a short list of two other schools in the country similar in structure -- one in Baltimore, that had been in place for over a century, and another in Philadelphia. Tisch had the challenge of persuading New York's bureaucratic powers, in command of the biggest and most difficult educational school system in the country, that New York needed to be included on that list. I'll presume she conquered that challenge.

As you read this, YWLS classrooms are filled with wide-eyed students and concerned teachers who stand as living testimonials to the proficiency of bold innovation. Student-teacher ratios generally go no higher than about 20 to 1, as both teachers and students are put through an acceptance process before final admission into the school. Teachers interested in teaching at YWLS are put through careful interviewing methods by a designated division of the Board of Education, probed for the passion, energy, devotion, and genuine concern that it takes to be a part of the YWLS staff. Because of the overwhelming number of YWLS applicants, students who apply are only considered if they place the school as their number one choice. District Four students (Harlem; East Harlem) are granted priority in the admissions process.

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