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Teaching them early to aspire, stand tall

In an effort to create female leaders of tomorrow, organizations are teaching young women to develop confidence and drive, steering them on a path to professional success.

From instilling aspirations for college to empowering girls to embrace their strengths and take charge, these programs want to make a difference.

“Our expectation is 100 percent graduation here and 100 percent college acceptance,” says LaShunda Leslie-Smith, president and CEO of Young Women’s College Prep Foundation Inc., who oversees the development and implementation of programs at Young Women’s College Prep Charter School.

The school opened in 2012 for 81 girls in seventh grade. YWCP now accepts applications for girls who are living in Rochester and entering the seventh, eighth or ninth grades. There are no special admissions or academic requirements.

It is the first and only all-girls public school in Rochester, Leslie-Smith says, and the primary focus is to reach girls in the northeast quadrant of the city—where the high school graduation rate is the lowest and poverty is the highest.

“People think because we’re a charter school we get to skim from the top but that’s not the case,” Leslie-Smith says. “We’re getting girls with a high level of need. Fifty-two percent are reading below grade level.”

Smaller classes allow teachers to offer individual attention. With that approach, 77 percent of students improved two or more grade levels in their reading scores last year, Leslie-Smith says.

Implanting the idea of college is important for all the students at YWCP, especially given the fact that their former schools in the Rochester City School District have some of the worst graduation rates in New York State.

Truancy, low performance and lack of parental involvement are all reasons district leaders give for the low graduation rate. Teenage pregnancies cause a higher dropout rate and derail plans for future education, a problem the YWCP seeks to reverse, Leslie-Smith says.

Leadership development is a key goal at the school. YWCP officials point to a report compiled for the Higher Education Research Institute at University of California at Los Angeles that finds female graduates of single-sex high schools demonstrate higher academic achievement than their co-ed peers. That includes higher SAT scores and increased confidence in math and computer skills. These graduates also show higher levels of political engagement.

So far, the YWCP is proud of its staying power with its students, reporting retention rates of 99 percent for 2013 and 90 percent for 2014. Many of the girls who have left the program did so because they moved and were no longer Rochester residents, which is a requirement to be enrolled at YWCP.

Leslie-Smith credits the high retention rate to the success of parental involvement, individualized teaching and a unique way to handle conflict when it arises.

College is more than a dream now for YWCP ninth-grader Gabriella Bellonio, who joined the all-girls school with its inaugural seventh-grade class. She is one of the students who will participate in the summer programs that YWCP conducts in partnership with Nazareth and Roberts Wesleyan colleges. The goal is to give students exposure to college so they can envision themselves on campus one day.

“I experienced a lot in seventh grade at Nazareth,” Bellonio says.

As Leslie-Smith explains, the seventh-grade college program is designed to get the students accustomed to the idea of college. The ninth-grade program helps get the parents to believe in the potential of college for their daughters as well.

“I want to be a lawyer,” Bellonio says. “I want to go to Nazareth. My mom is happy I’m going to college.”

Bellonio says she has made a complete turnaround since she started attending YWCP. She entered seventh grade at a sixth-grade reading level and quickly improved to the eighth-grade level that year. Today, she takes Latin because she thinks it is fun, and math is her other favorite subject.

“If I was at the other school I wouldn’t have what I have right now,” Bellonio says. “It’s helped me here by realizing where I can go with my future.”

School is not the only place girls can go for leadership development in Rochester. Girls can “get their game on” while learning how to be a major player in the game of life through an all-girls program sponsored by the city’s Department of Recreation and Youth Services.

The Girls Coalition is open to young women ages six through 18. They meet once a month with female advisers at recreation centers across the city. The centers offer recreation and after school programming.

“It lets them know there are truly caring adults in their lives, which is something not all these girls have,” says Kristina Heiligenthaler, program development specialist at Recreation and Youth Services.

There are 70 girls in the city-funded program that began eight years ago with four recreation centers. It has expanded to seven sites, and the number of girls has grown, along with their involvement.

“It’s a positive theme based on what the girls want,” Heiligenthaler says. “We have female advisers who help them plan their events. This year we have a college connection and the girls get to have engagement with Nazareth.”

The Nazareth program is an exchange that provides mutual benefit, she says. Students at the college majoring in social service and community youth development gain experience working with the teams at the recreation centers. In turn, the girls get exposure to young women attending college and planning for their future.

A girl who first started as a participant of the Girls Coalition is now one of the program’s staff members.

“I was a youth participant at the rec center on Flint Street. Then I was hired as a youth worker and then promoted to recreation assistant. Now I’m taking over the Girls Coalition program at Flint Street,” says Homer Acwil, senior recreational assistant and coordinator for the Girls Coalition.

Acwil oversees operations as a whole. She meets with advisers and follows up to implement the monthly meeting directives.

Local colleges are helping young girls in their development and some continue to extend programs to girls as they develop into young women. The Rocxxy Summer Internship in Feminist Activism, sponsored by the Susan B. Anthony House, is offered through the University of Rochester to all students.

The program piloted in 2013 with a community action grant from the national office of the American Association of University Women. Part of its goal is to teach women they do not have to settle for being a soldier in their crusade for positive change. They can be the general if they so choose.

“Students that went into non-profit work were care-fatigued,” explains Angela Clark-Taylor, who manages the program. “They wanted leadership (help) and to know they didn’t have to be just on the ground. We’re building future non-profit leaders.”

Students work for 20-25 hours per week for the 10-week summer semester. They work as interns at Rochester non-profits that offer services based on feminist activism and leadership such as the Genesee Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Alternatives for Battered Women and the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership.

Through the internship, students visit historic sites that serve as community partners such as the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Harriet Tubman House.

The students talk about the meaning of leadership and have the opportunity to learn and explore.

“Knowledge is really just information and experience,” Clark-Taylor explains. “We are giving students the chance to move from knowledge to engaged leaders. What a wonderful opportunity that is for men and women.”

Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

2/27/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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