After 17 years as a principal and teacher in Newark schools, it was too good an opportunity for Kim Wright-White to pass up: Lead the district’s new Girls Academy of Newark, the state’s first all-girls public school in almost 40 years.
But it also meant that Wright-White had to challenge her own assumptions about public schools, a process she continues to go through as she gears up for a September opening.
“It has changed my own perceptions, and now I need to change the perceptions of others,” Wright-White said.
”We’re looking at this changing the whole trajectory of our girls, and being a beacon for other places where women and girls are as well recognized as they should be,” she said.
The school is the second half of the district’s venture into single-gender institutions under Superintendent Cami Anderson, following the opening of Eagle Academy for Young Men last year.
Both will be located in the Louise A. Spencer School in the city’s Central Ward, now home to four distinct schools, all in different parts of the sprawling building.
The academy will start with a sixth grade of at least 75 students and will ultimately grow through 12th grade.
The “college preparatory school” will present an especially rigorous curriculum that will include a Latin requirement, an extended school day, and eventually the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. IB is an intensive, project-based curriculum that private schools in particular have used as an alternative to the Advanced Placement track.
Wright-White said the school will also have a strong technology and international focus, hopefully connecting the students with their peers in places like Singapore and England. She cited how a preponderance of homes in her native Newark are led by women.
“If we don’t change how we prepare women in our city to assume different roles and nontraditional jobs, then we are doing an entire community a disservice,” she said.
In addition, the academy will be set up differently for social and counseling support, recognizing that the needs of girls may differ than those of boys.
“We wanted to create supports that are geared to the needs of girls as they develop into young women,” said Tiffany Hardrick, the district’s assistant superintendent who helped design the program. “We really want to merge the academic and the social supports, because we know how interconnected they are.”
The students will be getting their first sense of the new school next week, when they attend a 10-day orientation session. During that time they will also be at Rutgers University.
The summer program will be led by Sadie Nash Leadership Project, a Brooklyn-based program that aims to empower young women.
The new school has also worked with the Young Women’s Leadership Network, another program out of New York City that has more than a dozen partner schools in New York, Texas, Illinois and Maryland.
All-girls schools are not new, but they have fallen out of favor in public education in New Jersey. The last public school based on this model in New Jersey was Battin High School in Elizabeth, which in 1977 merged with the all-boys Thomas Jefferson High School into the current Elizabeth High School.
There are more than 100 single-gender public schools in the country, both for boys and girls. Another 300 provide some single-gender programs within co-ed schools.
Some of these programs have come under legal challenge as being potentially discriminatory; 2006 federal guidelines mandate that the same opportunities be offered boys and girls. New Jersey also has statute prohibiting certain limited enrollments, including by gender.
One of the values of all-girls schools is that they give students a chance to step out a little, which is sometimes a challenge in co-ed schools. And there is a wealth of research indicating that women remain under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM concentrations.
“It’s a safe space where they can be secure, where they can be vocal,” Wright-White said.
“Very few think of girls in terms of technology, in terms of mathematics, even the international piece,” she said. “That kind of thinking is what we are trying to change.”
The girls and boys schools will be entirely separate, even down to having two entrances at opposite ends of the block-long building. But officials said there is some discussion about having the students interact socially or in other programs.
Once they were aware of the options, families reacted enthusiastically.
“There was a great deal of interest in the school,” said Hardrick. “There was no difficulty recruiting, it was just more a matter of awareness. But people did know about Eagle, and a lot of parents were looking for the female version.”
The new principal said she is proud to be part of it.
“Being a product of Newark and being here as this is created, I am very proud to be part of it,” said Wright-White. “I want to do justice for these girls.”