Lori-Anne Ramsay did not speak up much at the coeducational public high school she attended in New York City. “When I was in physics class, I expected all the boys to be smarter than me,” Ramsay recalls.
In two years at The Young Women's Leadership School (TYWLS) in East Harlem, however, Ramsay has blossomed. She graduated in June with honors and in September will be off to Bates College in Maine to study economics.
Ramsay credits much of her success to TYWLS' all-girl environment. “It allows you to focus more,” Ramsay says. “Having the opposite sex in the room is a distraction.”
But Ramsay concedes there are downsides to a single-sex school. “The social aspects are not all that good,” she says. “If you're not a person who goes out and makes friends, you definitely suffer.”
Ramsay's classmates and her teachers generally echo her positive feelings toward the six-year-old experiment in public, single-sex education. A few, however, note some disadvantages or credit the school's success primarily to other factors. “It's the school itself — the teachers, the staff,” says Oberlin-bound graduate Jasmine Cruz-Oquendo.
“Our school is unique not only because it is single-sex but also because we have small classes, very dedicated teachers and kids have to apply to be here,” says Spanish teacher Roseanne Demammos. “Certainly, some of the students could have experienced the same success” at a coeducational school.
Principal Kathleen Ponze also acknowledges the school's small size — 370 students in grades 7-12 — necessarily limits its offerings: There are only two advanced-placement courses, for example. “It's extremely difficult to meet the needs of every kid,” Ponze says. She also laments the limited social opportunities the school can provide.
Still, TYWLS tries to fill the gaps. The school partners with New York University for a drama club and with an all-boys Catholic school for socials. And juniors and seniors can take courses at nearby Hunter College. “We don't have any of the frills here,” Ponze says. “We try to make the frills.”
More worrisome has been the high staff turnover. Ponze is the school's third principal, and more than a dozen teachers left last year. “The school is very demanding of its faculty as well as its students,” says Demammos. “It's not necessarily the right situation for everyone.”
This year, however, staffing has stabilized. “We appear to have stopped the bleeding,” Ponze says.
A visitor to the school — housed on five floors of a nondescript office building in southernmost East Harlem — sees little to suggest shortcomings, however. The school is clean, the walls decorated with student projects, the girls neatly uniformed in plaid skirts or navy trousers with white blouses under vests or blazers. Classrooms use tables instead of rows of desks, to encourage girls to study together, rather than competitively.
As with most of the nation's two-dozen or so single-sex public schools, the students are overwhelmingly from minorities — in TYWLS's case, primarily Latina and African-American. Of 34 seniors, 23 live at or below the poverty level. Twenty-two graduates will be the first in their families to attend college. But Columbia-bound valedictorian Maryam Zohny follows three older siblings to college.
TYWLS founder Ann Rubenstein Tisch got the idea for the school while covering education stories as an NBC correspondent. “I didn't think we were doing enough for inner-city kids,” she says. “If it's OK for affluent boys and girls, and Catholic boys and girls, wouldn't it follow that it would work in another community?”
Tisch, who married into the family that controls the Loews Corp., set up a foundation to help support the school — to the tune of about $200,000 last year. New York's Board of Education pays for the building, teachers and books and supplies. Classes have about 20-22 students — a low teacher-student ratio that depends on several budgeting arrangements with the Board of Education.
Tisch's foundation helps buy curricular materials, gives some summer scholarships and pays for a full-time college counselor. That last investment pays off. For the second year in a row, all of the school's seniors gained admittance to four-year colleges, although one graduate is joining the Navy instead — for financial reasons.
The school is listed in New York magazine as one of the city's top public high schools, but the admissions policy is targeted to applicants performing at or below grade level. Applicants must tour the school with a family member. Once a student is admitted, she and her parents or guardians sign a contract promising to support the school's mission of rigorous academics, attendance and “thoughtful habits of mind” and to keep the lines of communication open between parents and the school.
TYWLS graduates gather around 2002 commencement speaker Alma Powell, wife of Secretary of State Colin Powell. All but one of the girls will attend college this fall. (Young Women's Leadership School)
For the coming year, the school has 550 applicants for 60 seventh-grade slots and 1,200 applicants for three openings in the ninth grade.
In contrast to the student body, two-thirds of the 26-member teaching staff is white. Ponze acknowledges the disparity but notes that she recently hired five persons of color, including an assistant principal.
Teachers cite a range of experiences indicating that single-sex education can benefit girls in and out of the classroom. “By not having [boys], they were able to compete with themselves,” says science teacher Melissa Melchior. “There wasn't that level where guys would dominate.”
“Socially, girls become less competitive with each other when there aren't any boys around,” says math teacher Deb Carlson-Doom. “There's less sparring in general because there aren't boys.”
The graduating students echo their teachers' observations. “We could be ourselves,” says Karla Carballo. “We didn't have to pretend to be anyone else.”
Many stress the close bonds of sisterhood with their classmates. “It was a lot of support,” says Leslie Cortez. “It was very much a family.”
“The girls are so united, so focused on [each other's] education,” says Denise Fernandez. “It's not for everyone, but it was good for me.”