After years of planning and fundraising, the first all-girls charter school in North Carolina opened its doors in Wilmington on Aug. 29. Principal Laura Hunter stood near the school’s entrance, offering high fives and hugs to every sixth grader who stepped off the school bus.
As the first busload of students filed through the school’s doors, Hunter turned, grinning, to a colleague and said, “It’s happening!”
Hunter’s excitement was mirrored in the faces of the community members and leaders who milled in the parking lot for the school’s grand-opening celebration. Seeing the 100 students in the inaugural class arrive felt “cathartic,” Hunter said, after the amount of preparation that went into making the day possible.
The school, called the Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington, or GLOW, is an affiliate of The Young Women’s Leadership Network (TYWLN), a program started by Ann Tisch in East Harlem in 1996. GLOW’s website states the success of TYWLN inspired the opening of dozens of single-sex schools nationwide that serve “predominantly low-income girls who will be the first in their families to attend college.”
But never had a YWLN school opened in a city as small as Wilmington, said Judy Girard, the driving force behind opening GLOW after UNCW chancellor Gary Miller’s wife Georgia moved to Wisconsin when her husband left the college for a new position. Georgia was the catalyst, Girard insists.
During the grand-opening ceremony, she thanked the community, saying, “Not all towns the size of Wilmington would get behind this the way you have.”
Girard was inspired to join the effort to open a YWLN school in Wilmington after years of volunteering at the schools in New York City. There, she worked with a girl named Carolina Rosario who helped her see the extent of the program’s impact.
Rosario, whose parents immigrated to the United States, fell behind in school because she could only learn by verbal teaching. She enrolled in a YWLN school where she was partnered with Girard for a college-readiness exercise. TYWLN also assigned her a tutor to deliver her lessons verbally so she wouldn’t fall behind.
Rosario spoke to the audience during GLOW’s grand-opening celebration, telling them how, with the guidance of TYWLN, she was accepted into a small New York college for her undergraduate degree. And, she added as the audience cheered, she was recently accepted as a graduate student at Columbia University.
Sprinkled throughout the cheering audience were parents of the GLOW students, and several of them agreed that college preparation was one of the main reasons they enrolled their daughters in the school. GLOW’s website states that since 2001, TYWLN alumnae have “achieved a 95 percent high school graduate rate and a near 100 percent college acceptance rate.”
At GLOW, achieving those statistics involves preparing the girls academically as well as emotionally.
“We empower them from day one,” Girard said. “These kids just blossom and suddenly it dawns on them that they can be a doctor, or anything they want to be, and we’ll help them get there.”
Math teacher Erica Hodulik said she has never taught in an environment that is so collectively focused on the students’ future.
“I’ve never been in a culture where every person is so driven with the same mission of helping our girls succeed in life,” she said.
The teamwork mentality is apparent not only in the school’s culture but in its design. The classrooms are connected and teachers are encouraged to find overlap between the different subjects in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) curriculum. Students learn in groups around tables instead of at individual desks.
Hodulik said the learning environment more closely resembles that of a college, referencing her own experience as an engineering major at Vanderbilt University.
“You work with different kinds of engineers and people who aren’t even in engineering,” she said, “so our girls will be much more ready, wherever they decide to go.”
Motivational mantras surround the girls, even while they’re eating lunch. Hanging from the cafeteria walls are enormous posters bearing phrases like “live with confidence” and “NEVER leave a sister behind” — together forming a pledge created by the students.
The girls were given a list of 90 values, and the pledge represents the values they selected as most important, Girard said, adding that she was just as inspired by the values they did not choose.
“They threw out wealth, they threw out power,” she said.
For the next seven years, the class of 2023 will do their best to live by that pledge, joined every year by more incoming sixth graders. Alvin Malloy believes those seven years will prepare his 11-year-old daughter for the next stage in her life — college — but for now, he has a more general wish for his daughter’s future.
“I want her to follow her heart,” he said.