Nikki Bowen and Meredith Anderson, the principals of Uncommon Schools Excellence Girls Charter School (Brooklyn, NY), are committed to changing history.
Anderson, the middle school principal explains, “We know that all students can be successful, and that, in particular, girls can achieve.” In a nation that hasn’t traditionally held high expectations for girls, especially girls who are low income and of color, “We are committed to building a K-8 school that proves that wrong every day.”
The school’s 2016 recognition as a National Blue Ribbon School for exemplary high performance is testament to that commitment.
Excellence Girls Charter School occupies two buildings in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The elementary school was founded in 2009 in response to parental requests for a girls’ version of Uncommon Schools Excellence Boys Charter School, a K-8 school founded nearby in 2004. The middle school was added in 2013.
Excellence Girls’ leaders are mindful of the challenges young women face in getting an education and see their mission as dual: “We have the mission as educators to always push our kids to be ‘super-duper’ smart and prepared for college and beyond,” says Bowen, principal of the elementary school. “But we have an added layer because it’s our job to develop our girls into these Fierce Females we know they can be through developing their character and really boosting their confidence.”
“Fierce Females” are a daily part of the elementary school curriculum. “Our morning meeting curriculum is all focused on female empowerment,” explains Bowen. The educators feature a “fierce female” each month, drawing on women past and present from around the world who exemplify characteristics such as resilience and persistence that are part of forming a strong identity, such as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth.
Another Fierce Female focus, on Lupita Nyong’o, changed a young girl’s life and that of her family. This student had darker skin than her younger sister and routinely tormented her younger sister over this difference. “But it wasn’t about her sister,” says Bowen, “it was more about her self-worth and how she identified.” Following the focus on Nyong’o, this student sent a note to the guidance counselor stating that for the first time she felt beautiful. The family reported a
positive change in their daughters’ relationship. Learning about Nyong’o, who is not stereotypically beautiful by American standards, and learning how her hard work and determination won her a place as a fashion icon, “really connected for this student,” Bowen notes. “It helps me recognize how deep our mission is,” she reflects.
The school’s emphasis on developing girls “who are competent, who understand they are capable of doing anything they put their minds to,” who can overcome self-doubt and dismiss voices who suggest that they can’t do something that girls stereotypically don’t do has captured national attention. People Magazine profiled Bowen last February.
Creating a Strong and Affirming Culture
Principal Anderson describes how the school balances building on the strengths and skills girls have developed at Excellence Girls Elementary with developing new leadership skills in them. To create a harmonious community that “celebrates the power of sisterhood,” the middle school administration has been deliberate about creating spaces for girls to discuss, listen, be heard, and lead.
One forum is the middle school discovery group—a small group of mixed-age students who meet monthly with an adult for discussion. Topics range from world events to immediate community concerns and discussions typically begin with a video or text that seeds the discussion. A discussion on social media, for example, was aimed at “arming our girls with the skills to be thoughtful and intentional” about how they represent themselves, not only face-to-face, but in the nebulous virtual world. A peace curriculum also plays a large role, especially at the beginning of the year, in creating a cohesive culture based on carefully investigated core values; those discussions are led by both a teacher and a student facilitator.
Working with Public Schools
Excellence Girls Elementary and Middle Academies are, with Excellence Boys Charter School, part of Uncommon Schools, a network of public charter schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts aimed at reversing the achievement gap and preparing low-income students to enter into, succeed in and graduate from college. The New York City-based Uncommon Schools are unusual among charter schools for forming intense and mutually supportive relationships with nearby New York City public schools, although this positive trend is growing, an EdWeek article suggests.
Excellence Girls Elementary Academy is in the same building as P.S. 309 The George E. Wibecan Preparatory Academy of New York City Public Schools, while the Middle Academy shares a building with P.S. 191 Paul Robeson. Collaborations between Uncommon Schools and district schools in Brooklyn encompass classroom observations of each other’s classrooms, conjoint principal walkthroughs, shared lesson plans, and professional development sessions. Explains Bowen, “We understand it is going to take all adults to be involved in this movement … thinking about not just our school but thinking about all kids. … We make it our point as Uncommon to share with our nearest public schools or anyone who wants to come observe, who wants to come learn and see what we are doing.”
Anderson notes that because their students and those at P.S. 191 see each other walking to school and overlap in the play yard, “we want to make sure that all of the children see the adults as being on the same page” in supporting their education. She adds that New York City Uncommon Schools intentionally partners with the City Department of Education, citing a recent workshop for high school teachers that drew more than 100 New York public district school and Uncommon charter teachers.
A Longer School Day
As a charter school, Excellence Girls has extended the school day; students attend from 7:15 to 4:00 pm, compared with counterpart public schools, which operate from 8:30 to 2:30. The extra time enables features such as Morning Meeting, specials, and additional time for building students’ academic skills, and particularly for English Language Arts—which is at the heart of every subject and social life itself, Bowen says.
The ELA emphasis in intended to engage young girls in reading and writing both as avenues to further learning and a foundation for developing a compelling and articulate voice. At the elementary level, ELA classes are co-taught and supports small-group ability differentiation. At the middle level, two ELA teachers separate the instruction of reading and writing. “Writing with sophistication requires a dedicated specialist and a period for students to really hone and refine their work,” says Anderson, so their writing skills advance alongside their reading skills. Middle schoolers take part in and chronicle numerous large and small group text-based discussions.
Math is also co-taught. The curriculum includes a daily spiral review, inquiry, and problem-based learning. Student data are constantly analyzed to forestall student misconceptions and provide growing space for students who are achieving above grade-level expectations.
Most students don’t enter Excellence Girls on grade level; the curriculum is designed to help them jump two or even three grades up from where they enter the school. “We really make it our job to teach until the kids learn and we come up with different ways of differentiation,” Bowen says, explaining that during a reading block, a third grader might go to a 1st grade class to receive reading instruction on her level. She points to very strong student growth as a result of these carefully differentiated schedules.
Recognizing the disparity in female to male representation in STEM fields, 3rd and 4th graders at Excellence Girls compete against their peers at Excellence Boys in mental math. Over time, Bowen says, the girls have overcome a need for “perfection” and gotten faster. This matters, she says, because women tend not to go for opportunities they are more than qualified for: “A man and a woman will look at the same job description—and if a man has 60% of those qualities he’ll give it a shot. A woman, unless she has 100%, will likely not even go for it.”
Last year, in what may be a prophetic outcome, the Excellence Girls 4th graders trounced the 4th grade boys.
Nikki Bowen, Principal; Meredith Anderson, Principal
794 Monroe Street 3rd Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11221-3501
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Student Demographics 2016
|Number of students K – 7||677|
|Students eligible for subsidized meals||78%|
|Limited English Proficient students||1%|
|Students receiving special ed services||8%|
|Student mobility rate||13%|
|Black or African American students||84%|
|Hispanic or Latino students||8%|
|Students of 2 or more races||6%|
|Average student daily attendance||95%|