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Saturday, July 13, 2024

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By Simon Gonzalez and Pat Bradford

Wilmington’s newest school is called GLOW. It’s an acronym, standing for Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington. It’s also a word that sums up the optimism that abounds at the public charter school.

Glow can mean shine brightly, radiate. That’s what school officials and board members expect — bright students who shine in their classes and radiate hope when they graduate and head off to college.

There was definitely a hearty glow at the historic ribbon-cutting ceremony under a tent on Monday that officially opened the very first all-girls charter school in the state. Speakers from New Hanover County to New York extolled the virtues of the new school and the hopes for the first class of 100 sixth graders and those to follow.

“Your ZIP code should not determine your destiny,” said Judy Girard, who took over efforts to found the academy after Georgia Miller, wife of University of North Carolina Wilmington chancellor Gary Miller, left when her husband accepted a new position in Wisconsin.

GLOW is one of 18 in the Young Women’s Leadership Network, which has its roots in East Harlem, one of the most impoverished areas of New York City. That’s the location of the first school, opened in 1996 to provide opportunities for girls from underprivileged backgrounds. Ann Tisch, who started the Young Women’s Leadership Network, was among the speakers on Monday.

“This morning is really what America is all about,” Tisch told the girls, parents, supporters, business leaders and plenty of elected officials. “This is about changing the lives of your daughters and even families.”

The East Harlem school is an unqualified success. In 2001, 100 percent of the girls in the first graduating class were accepted by colleges. Every class since has duplicated that number.

That is the expectation for every GLOW girl, stated boldly by principal Laura Hunter: “She will graduate from high school. She will go to a competitive four-year university. She will graduate with a college degree. That is why we are here. Failure is not an option.”

Public charter schools can be controversial. They receive taxpayer funding, but there are only so many dollars to go around. Everyone that goes to a charter school is one fewer for a traditional public school.

Proponents of charter schools cite their ability to think outside the box and find creative ways to educate their students. Critics claim they lack the same level of oversight accorded to traditional schools, leading to academic and financial failures.

The state might be revealing some tacit acknowledgement of the controversy. Earlier this month, the North Carolina Board of Education turned down five charter school applicants that had been recommended for approval by an advisory board.

GLOW, however, has the enthusiastic backing of the state, the county school board and other elected officials, including Rep. Susi Hamilton, whose daughter is enrolled. In fact, when the group from Wilmington went to Raleigh last February to make its case, the school not only received unanimous approval but encouragement to replicate the model in other communities throughout North Carolina.

That is as it should be, because GLOW is all about opportunity and equality.

“It is a true equalizer,” Tisch said.

The school is primarily designed for students from at-risk backgrounds who would be the first in their family to graduate from a four-year college. It is limited to girls because, as Hunter puts it, they are the most vulnerable in a public school system overwhelmed with needs and underwhelmed with resources, especially in lower-income areas.

The school will employ a challenging STEAM curriculum: science, technology, engineering, art and math. Not all students will come in on grade level, but the goal is to close the achievement gap within two years.

The girls will learn from teachers like Erica Hodulik and Canesha Jacobs.

Hodulik felt like an oddball when she studied engineering at Vanderbilt, being one of only four females in her major. She wants to encourage her students to study math and science, and increase the number of girls in those fields.

Jacobs, who teaches English, was born to a single, teenaged mother. Statistics were against her being a success, but she graduated from high school and college. She beat the odds, and wants to help others do the same.

Tisch referenced “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott, describing these girls as “mistresses of their own ship.”

Time will record how well GLOW succeeds in its goals. But with motivated teachers, enthusiastic students and the strong and enthusiastic backing of the community and elected officials, Wilmington’s newest school is on the path to be one of its best.

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