All-girls' school moves into former YWCA building

The historic Mount Vernon building that has long served as a haven for Baltimore women has officially opened its doors as the first all-girl, public middle school in the city.

The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women welcomed more than 200 students into its new facility on West Franklin Street earlier this month in the building that for nearly a century housed the headquarters of the Greater Baltimore Young Women's Christian Association.

The Leadership School community, along with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and city school officials, will celebrate the grand opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. Wednesday. It is the first public school to open in the Mount Vernon neighborhood in 30 years.

After spending their first year housed in a cramped stretch of hallway of another school, sixth- and seventh-grade girls started the new school year in the six-level school building, which underwent nearly $2.5 million in renovations and restorations.

The girls' middle school was founded in 2009, but some felt its introduction into the district was less than welcoming. The inaugural class of 120 girls attended class in space at Western High School, whose community was vocal against the idea of sharing their facility.

"I see more ownership in the girls this year," said Lorna Hanley, the principal of the Leadership School. "There's just a sense of pride that we didn't have when we were sharing space. We feel like we're home."

"It's hard at the end of the day to get them out of the building," she added.

As students happily packed boxes to prepare for the move into the new state-of-the-art space last month, they said the building fulfilled their dream of having their own school.

"This is the biggest opportunity I've ever received," said Coco Bae Barkley, a seventh-grader at the school. "I feel like one of those superstars where they knock on the door and say, 'You won $5,000 — and you're a superstar.' "

In addition to the benefits of the school's location and remodeling, Hanley pointed out that the beauty of the school lies within the diversity of its students. Girls from Federal Hill to Cherry Hill have the opportunity to attend the Leadership School.

The first of its kind in the city, the Leadership School is modeled after a successful school in East Harlem, N.Y., whose mission is to provide premier education and college preparation to underserved girls, and has the goal of graduating 100 percent of its students and having them all go to college.

"I feel that all-girls' schools empower young women," said Maureen Colburn, executive director of the Baltimore school, who added that studies show that all-girl schools produce greater interest in engineering, math, science and college aspirations. "They are a place where they can learn in a safe environment. In our school, it's cool to be smart and our girls support each other — our competition is friendly competition that inspires girls to achieve. All-girl schools break down gender stereotypes and that environment really fosters that kind of growth."

Admission at the Baltimore school, which is 99 percent African-American, is based on a lottery. About 78 percent of students receive free and reduced-priced lunch, and the majority of students are from the city's east side. The school boasts a 97 percent attendance rate, and last year students scored 88 percent and 96 percent proficiency rates on the Maryland School Assessments in reading and math, respectively.

Barkley said that having a better space will "definitely" help her in the classroom. "It won't make me feel like I'm caved and cramped," she said. "I think it will keep me and the other girls focused."

Since the spring, the school has undergone a dramatic transformation, including the gutting of the entire first floor to accommodate 26 brightly colored classrooms and reading spaces that have natural light provided by panoramic-like windows. The school also has innovative touches such as motion-sensored lighting. The building already housed an auditorium and a gymnasium, which is used for everything from step-practice to Pilates.

"We wanted the girls to feel that we value them and to see it in their surroundings," Colburn said.

With the support of the city school system, the Leadership School founders purchased the building last year for $1.5 million and began a $4 million campaign to restore its physical amenities and resurrect its historic mission of empowering generations of Baltimore women. The YWCA of the Greater Baltimore moved its administrative offices around the corner to leased space at 505 Park Ave.

In 1916, two YWCA women raised the funds to build what was at the time a facility to provide residences and services for working women. The building served as headquarters for the work of the YWCA for the next 93 years, supporting a variety of programs for women.

Sylvia Fulwood Paylor, whose daughter was part of the Leadership School's inaugural class, said school officials couldn't have picked a better building and location. She chose the Leadership School because she favors single-sex education and attention to detail.

"It met the need, and they're just so happy, and now they won't feel like second-class citizens," Paylor said. "I think it's a unique history of the building that is now going to serve young girls who will be our city's leaders."