Volume 74, Number 53 | May 11 - 17 , 2005

Villager photo by Q. Sakamaki

With its “multi-petal” approach, Girls Prep intends to help its students bloom by developing them in both mind and body.

Charter school will be a first for girls

By Josie Garthwaite

More than 50 families from Brookyn to the Bronx plan to shuttle their 5- and 6-year-old daughters to the Lower East Side this September, when New York City’s first all-girl’s charter school opens on E. Fourth St.

Funded by state dollars and local fundraisers, school organizers say Girls Prep will give lower-income families an alternative long reserved for those who can afford to send their daughters to private schools.

Girls Prep outreach coordinator Rayna Goldman has done much of the legwork to get the word out about the new school, attending street fairs and local family day events. She says most people have found the school, however, through word-of-mouth.

“Wealthier families in New York City have had the option for a long, long time,” Goldman said. “But single-sex, all-girls public schools don’t exist in the Lower East Side.”

In fact, only two other single-sex public schools exist in New York City: Young Women’s Leadership Academy, an all-girls high school that opened in East Harlem in the 1990s, and Excellence, an all-boys elementary charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant. When Young Women’s Leadership Academy opened, the American Civil Liberties Union readied a legal challenge, saying it discriminated against boys, but was unable to find a boy who wanted to attend the school.

A charter school is a public school, yet is given leeway in curriculum and hiring. That a charter school is about to open — just for girls — on the Lower East Side has created a buzz among parents.

With the school’s 90-slot roster quickly filling up and a waiting list growing, it seems to be something families have been waiting for, and are willing to send their children to for the education.

Girls Prep will open with kindergarten and first grade, but is chartered to expand to K-5 over five years, adding 60 kindergarten girls each year.

Roughly 30 percent of the school’s growing inaugural class is from the Lower East Side, while parents from many of the other families work in the vicinity but live elsewhere.

Many of the girls, enrolled in the charter school’s four-hour Saturday Accelerated Learning Program, are already making a weekly commute. And if they’re anything like 4-year-old future scholar Nicole, it’s one of the best parts of their week.

Yohanna De Los Santos, Nicole’s mother and dean of students at the East Harlem charter school Village Academy, says her daughter can’t get enough of the Girls Prep Saturday program housed at University Settlement on Eldridge St.

“She wishes every day was Saturday,” De Los Santos said. “ ‘Is today Saturday?’ Nicole asks. ‘Is tomorrow Saturday?’ ”

Her mother says Nicole has been a fan of the Saturday gym period from the start, but math has gained points as she’s developed more skills in it.

Girls Prep Executive Director Miriam Lewis Raccah says this is part of the balance school leaders hope to cultivate at the new school, that she and Principal Nakia Haskins felt it was important to emphasize strength as a characteristic of both body and mind.

Raccah and Haskins created seven “petals,” or tenets of the Girls Prep culture, they hope to encourage, including confidence, strength, sisterhood, rigor, scholarship, diversity and responsibility. In the age of “Super Size Me” and the increase of childhood obesity throughout the country, they decided teaching the girls about healthy lifestyles would be essential to ensuring future success.

So whether it’s gym class or reading, Raccah says the rigor petal means taking on every task with intensity. Teachers are expected to demonstrate the seven petals by example, with professional development playing a major role in the school’s culture. Raccah describes a Fellows Program Girls Prep has put in place to “grow a diverse teaching base from within.”

The program is intended for inexperienced but promising young teachers who will implement the school’s science program and assist lead teachers in the classroom. The fellows, who hail from Princeton’s Project 55, Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers and other prestigious education studies programs, will allow Girls Prep to keep student-teacher ratios down. For reading instruction, Raccah says she hopes for a 5-to-1 ratio of students to teachers or fellows.

As executive director, Raccah says she will take care of administration duties usually relegated to principals, so Haskins will be “free to oversee academic and instructional issues in the classroom, making sure teachers are honing their skills.”

Principal Haskins, herself a product of New York City public schools and a former Teach for America corps member, says three key factors brought the alternative school to its Lower East Side home: math, reading and real estate. Math and reading, because organizers felt they could improve the test scores in the public school district, and real estate because Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has made space available for new schools like Girls Prep in underutilized public schools in the district. Late last month, Haskins and her colleagues in the charter learned their program would join P.S. 15 at its E. Fourth St. and Avenue C building.

With separate lunch hours and Girls Prep classes starting 30 minutes earlier, however, the charter school’s leaders say there will be little interaction with the existing school. Still, Haskins predicts the relationship will require some adjusting.

“It will be like moving in with a new college roommate,” she said. “It’s just going to take time.”

For more information about Girls Prep or to register for an information session, call 212-851-2707 or visit www.girlsprep.org online.

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