When she became principal, Termerion McCrary Lakes focused on all the things that her new school had: athletic programs, a team in the International Science Fair, a JROTC program, and a school-wide focus on STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—coursework.
But at the end of her first year helming the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy’s high school, Lakes realized that what mattered most was something the school did not have: boys. “We remove the idea that ‘my behavior has to be dictated by the presence of a boy,’” she says. “What we see is an increase in calculated risk taking. We see confidence to speak up.”
The school—awkwardly shortened to CSKYWLA and pronounced “cee-skee-wah-la”—was founded in 2007 as the only all-girls unit of Atlanta Public Schools. What began as a small middle school in a temporary facility has expanded to a full grade-six-through-twelve program on a dedicated campus. The first seniors graduated from CSKYWLA this past spring, and every single one was accepted to college; 2014 valedictorian Jamaya Powell will be attending Syracuse University this fall with a full scholarship.
The school’s attendance zone draws primarily from 30318, a zip code with some of the highest crime and poverty rates in the city of Atlanta. One hundred percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 98 percent are black. “For these girls, we are a light in the community,” says Lakes. “We are a place that is trying really hard to get it right for them.”
Lakes, an APS grad herself and former principal of South Atlanta School of Health and Medical Science, took over CSKYWLA in 2011. Coming from a coed school, Lakes was surprised by the girls’ eagerness and willingness to try in the classroom, particularly in math and science.
“Driving around this neighborhood, you see dilapidated structures, check-cashing establishments, and liquor stores,” says Lakes. “You don’t realize something amazing is happening. We are training future scientists, or as we call them, STEMinists.”
All 290 students are enrolled in a STEM pathway, choosing between emphases in biotechnology, research, and development; energy systems; and web and digital design. CSKYWLA students conduct research at Georgia Tech, place at the state science fair, and break stereotypes about women of color in the sciences.
All classes—from math to English—are based around discussion and debate because girls are, as Lakes puts it, “definitely, absolutely social creatures.”
Outside the classroom, the all-girl community helps to tear down barriers between students, teachers, and administrators. “We are just here to love on these girls,” says Lakes. “One of the things that is critical to a girl’s self-confidence is feeling like you see me, like I matter.” For example, CSKYWLA changed the phone message that goes home when a student is absent by adding, “I miss you. We miss you when you aren’t here.” And the teachers make sure someone seeks students out when they return to school to acknowledge that they are back. These small efforts are bolstered by the big endeavors the school undertakes, like the parent center: a place where volunteer “moms” make sure girls are prepared for the day ahead, providing practical support such as a washer and dryer, a closet full of toiletries, and even a shower.
“We do have kids that are homeless or other situations where they can’t come to school as prepared as other students,” says Lakes. “We remove barriers that prevent those girls from being successful at school. [The volunteers] help them get ready for the day, then they go on to class and no one has to know.
“For some of these girls, the school has to become the family. The school is a larger share of the support system than for others.”
Lakes knows not all students are going to win science fairs. “You start where the kid is, and you go from there,” she says. “If you came here and you were belligerent, and you didn’t want to try—give us a month. You’ll be wanting a hug; you’ll be smiling. That might not be a math score, but that’s something. I hope the legacy of this place is that we loved girls. We literally loved these girls.”