Latrice Madison

CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)–Ask ninth grader Latrice Madison why she transferred into Chicago’s only all-girls public school and she doesn’t a miss a beat: “My mama.”

Ask her why she will return next year and the answer comes just as quickly: “My mama. And me,” she said yesterday at the school’s end-of-the-year celebration.

“I feel more relaxed here. I don’t think about asking the question I want to ask. I ask it, without worrying about whether a boy will say, ‘She’s slow,'” said Madison. Her mother, Patricia Vinette, pulled her out of a neighborhood high school mid-year and transferred her into the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School because the school has a curriculum that is focused on teaching math and science. The fact that it’s also an all-girls school did not enter into the decision, she said.

But both–teaching math and science and empowering girls–are parts of the mission of the school, the only all-girls public school in Chicago and one of four in the nation.

The Young Women’s Leadership Charter School is just completing its first year of operation. Last fall, the school admitted 75 sixth graders and 75 ninth graders. It will repeat that pattern this each year, eventually serving 450 girls in grades six through 12.

The school operates as a public school under a “charter” that frees it from a lot of the red tape that hampers urban education in Chicago and elsewhere, including freedom from the teachers’ union contract and from many state regulations.It is modeled on an all-girls public school operating in New York City, the widely praised Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem.

The Chicago school aims to offer public school students the same education they would have if their parents could afford a private school: an academically demanding curriculum of math, science and technology in an environment that is safe for the girls it serves, said co-director Margaret Small.

Margaret Small, co-director, Chicago's Young Women's Leadership Charter School“The mission of this school is to support the emerging intellectual curiosity of young women. We want these girls to learn to think of themselves as active agents of their own lives,” Small said.

And it seems to be working. The Young Women’s Leadership Charter School was the only one of the nine city charters to have more than half its students scoring at grade level on the most recent round of national standardized tests.

Darling of Reform Movement for Under-Performing School System

Not surprisingly, it is the darling of the school reform movement in Chicago.

“I love this school,” said John Ayers, executive director of leadership for Quality Education, the business-funded school reform group that has promoted school choice as the best method to reform an under-performing system. “The school has a long way to go. I’m careful not to suggest this school has it all figured out. They are opening and inventing a school right now, in real time. They’re dropping balls. But, overall, it’s got the makings of a brilliant school.”

The student body is racially diverse–a rarity among the Chicago Public Schools. Sixty percent of the students are African American, 20 percent Latina, 10 percent white and the remaining 5 percent are a mix of biracial, Asian and Native American girls.

Diversity is not easy to achieve in Chicago, a city noted for its racially divided neighborhoods. Three Latina girls left the school after just three days to return home to the relative comfort of all-Hispanic schools, Small said. And, during the first week of school, one girl scrawled a nasty message about another girl on the bathroom wall. Co-director Mary Ann Pitcher used that experience to launch a lengthy discussion of how the girls should be supporting rather than attacking one another.

Rosio Melendez sounds almost surprised as she talks about how much she’s changed over the year. The ninth grader hails from the Back of the Yards, one of the city’s toughest Hispanic neighborhoods.

She showed off a web site she created about her neighborhood as a way to fulfill the school’s requirement that each student “defend” her year in front of a panel of three teachers and invited friends and family.

Making School Friends Who Are Latina, Black, White

“I have friends who are Latinas, friends who are black and friends who are white. At first, I was kind of embarrassed. I was afraid they would make fun of me. But, now I think it’s real cool,” she told her teachers.

No family came to hear Melendez’ presentation. Her parents “work too much,” she told the teachers, tears welling in her eyes. Her difficult home life made it hard for her to study and keep up with her schoolwork, she said. But, her work improved in the last trimester and “I’m gonna keep coming to this school until I graduate,” she pledged.

Sixth grader Sherrell Smith, 12, also dissolved into tears during her end-of-the-year presentation as she tried to make her way through a poem called “Young Womanhood Pledge.”

“We are born females, not women,” she read. “We will become women when we learn the art and science of Womanhood. We vow to do our best, to work hard and study. . .” Her voice trailed off and she ran for cover–crawling into the chair alongside math teacher Terri Townes who held her until she regained her composure and could go on.

Despite its long list of successes in its first year, the school may not survive long term. The American Civil Liberties Union is contemplating whether to challenge the school’s girls-only admissions policy.

“Our concerns here can really be seen as the obvious concern that all children, regardless of gender or race or nationality deserve equal opportunity to participate in quality education programs,” said Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU in Chicago.

Small bristles when asked about the possibility of a lawsuit challenging her school.

“The issue of gender equity has not penetrated education,” she said, sitting at a desk piled high with end-of-the-year reports. “It’s about power. This society privileges men. This is about trying to achieve equity. Boys think they deserve more attention. It’s not questioned.”

Cindy Richards has been a professional journalist in Chicago for 20 years. She has worked for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, where she wrote the Working Women column. As a reporter and editorial writer, she has covered health care, children’s issues, education and women’s issues. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.

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WEnews Brief

Californian Diane Watson Sworn In As 60th Woman in U.S. House

LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–Diane Watson, former ambassador to Micronesia and former California state senator, was sworn in Thursday as the 60th woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.

On Tuesday, Watson handily won her race to fill the 32nd district Congressional seat left vacant by the death of Julian Dixon. Her victory means a record number of women in the 435-member House and gender parity for California’s house delegation.

Watson, facing three other candidates, was assured election in the heavily Democratic district after winning a hotly contested primary election. An African American, Watson battled two other well-known African American Democratic politicians, state Sen. Kevin Murray and Los Angeles City Councilman, Nate Holden.

She won the primary despite opposition from organized labor, some Los Angeles-area Democratic House members and other party heavyweights. Addressing a convention of Democratic women near Los Angeles before the spring primary, she chided party leaders for supporting her major opponent when she had devoted 25 years to the party.

Known for speaking her mind, Watson is expected to quickly make her presence felt in the capital. At 67, she brings a wealth of experience from years in government and is the oldest freshman member of the House. Her detractors in the primary and the election argued that she was too old for the demanding position.

Considered an activist and problem solver, Watson has been offered seats on the Government Reform, Agriculture and Veterans’ Affairs committees. She is also considering seats on Small Business and Foreign Affairs committees. Her expressed preference is serving on the Commerce and the Education and Workforce panels.

The 32nd district is a diverse and demanding, its core is Los Angeles from Koreatown to Westwood, including some of the city’s poorest and wealthiest neighborhoods. Numerous languages are spoken across the area. Its demographics have changed over the last several years and Watson’s biggest fight in Congress may well be over re-districting that could potentially leave her without a district in 2002. — By Deborah Prussel