Seven years ago 120 girls bedecked in purple polo shirts and plaid skirts walked into an experiment — a Baltimore public school modeled on those originally designed for affluent white girls whose families could afford to send them to "finishing school."
On Friday, half of those girls, all but one of them African-American and most from working-class families, will don white robes to make history as the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, the city's first all-female, public middle-high school.
The 60 graduates, all of whom are going to college, embody the fulfillment of a dream that there could be a school where girls from across the city could come together and "transform Baltimore one young woman at a time."
The motto represents the mission of Brenda Brown Rever, a local philanthropist who founded the public charter school in 2009 with the help of a board of directors that now includes such prominent figures as Carla Hayden, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, who is set to become librarian of Congress.
A lifelong advocate for women's rights, Rever said she realized 10 years ago that she needed to help women earlier in their lives by educating and empowering them "so that they would have a better life within their grasp."
The Leadership School is modeled after a school in East Harlem, N.Y., whose mission was to provide a premier education and college preparation to underserved girls in an urban setting and have 100 percent of them graduate and be accepted to college.
The young women who met that challenge in Baltimore say their journey was marked by trials and triumphs as they grew up in a school whose own growing pains were felt in what is affectionately called the "BLSYW (pronounced "Bliss") bubble."
"When we were in sixth grade, a lot of people didn't think we would still be here, let alone all be accepted into college," said Cori Grainger, who will attend the Johns Hopkins University in the fall on a full scholarship. "But being here, surrounded by people who want you to do better and be better, we found there's always a way."
The girls who started as middle-schoolers experienced everything from the school changing locations to having three different principals. They had to advocate for elective courses and extracurricular activities that were staples at more established schools.
They watched as half their class left for other schools that offered a more traditional experience, or simply dropped out. They've overcome homelessness, losing family members to violence, and nearly failing out of school.
"It was total pressure on us from the sixth grade up because we were the guinea pigs for everything," said Blessin Giraldo, who will attend a specialized first-year program, BridgeEdu, through the University of Baltimore next year. "This was a risk. But now I feel fearless. … We made it. We're survivors. That's the legacy we leave for little BLSYW sisters."
The girls had to be role models for each other, and for younger students.
"We didn't have people to look up to but I feel like I will benefit from all of the lessons that I learned about myself," said Ayanna Paylor, who will attend Community College of Baltimore County.
"I learned I have to be OK with me, and the school will only get you so far," she added. "It didn't all come together the way I wanted. But if I had gone to a different school, I wouldn't have had the space to figure that out."
Teachers say the first graduating class has been integral in molding the school's vision of what a holistic education for future classes should look like.
"They've become very thoughtful, real thinkers, and they like to challenge everything," said Lisa Langston, a founding teacher and chair of the English department. "They have made all of us better. … And they're the pioneers."
The school began its first year on the third floor of Western High School in Northwest Baltimore, which had reigned as the city's all-female, flagship high school for more than 150 years. BLSYW has since become a trailblazer in its own right. A year after it opened, it moved into a historic West Franklin Street building. Unlike Western, also a college preparatory school which boasts graduates such as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, BLSYW has a middle school, and it does not have entrance criteria.
It received 250 applications for 100 middle-school slots last year.
Sylvia Paylor was among the parents who flocked to the school when it opened. A Western graduate, she believes in all-girls education and wanted the same for her daughter starting in middle school. She said she watched her daughter flourish and mature.
"Once she said to me, 'I know I didn't do everything I was supposed to do,' I knew I'd made the right choice," Paylor said.
Triana Flemming, Cori's mother, said her daughter would not have been accepted to Johns Hopkins without BLSYW. The school afforded Cori opportunities her mother couldn't give her: college visits, a summer program at Princeton University, help researching scholarships.
"I believe her being at BLSYW reinforced the importance of her being an educated person in general, not just a woman," Flemming said.
The school's leaders acknowledge that the school had to evolve to fulfill its promise of offering a rigorous, college preparatory program with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Shanaysha Sauls, the former chair of the city school board who took over as CEO of BLSYW in July, said the school initially "didn't prioritize academics as much as love and care."
It had to manage students from a variety of backgrounds and, as a result, realized that having a washer and dryer for students to launder their uniforms was just as important as having a full-time college adviser.
"On paper we had this concept of who we'd be, what kind of uniforms they'd wear, what kind of experiences they'd have — but their lives, their neighborhoods, their families, their experiences were are all brought to the school as well," Sauls said.
In recent years, the school added a cadre of staff solely to help students adjust emotionally. It also focused on strengthening its academic programming to offer more rigorous courses such as physics and engineering. Next fall, the school will offer a career and technology education program in computer science.
Extracurricular activities have also expanded from just a step team to clubs like robotics, and an athletic program that includes cheerleading, basketball, and track and field.
Sauls said the school's new principal, Chevonne Hall, represents the "next phase" for BLSYW. Hall left her job evaluating schools for the system's central office to become principal.
Hall has raised standards in her one year at the school. She required seniors to complete a capstone project and demands that all students maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average.
"That's significant to us because many of them believed that they could not accomplish that goal," she said.
Hall said the graduating class "represents all that's possible in Baltimore City." More than half of the students will be the first in their families to attend college. They posted an average SAT score of 1393, well above the current district average of 1143. They were awarded a total of $487,650 in college scholarships.
At a recent "signing day," celebration, the seniors announced where they will attend college. The list includes University of Maryland College Park, Johnson & Wales and the Paul Mitchell School, a top beauty school in Maryland.
Paula Dofat, BLSYW's director of college advising, told the girls they should be proud, no matter their destination.
"In a perfect world, everybody would go to college," she said. "In the BLSYW world, everybody creates a success plan."
School administrators said that message is the legacy of the first graduating class.
"This class has worn their war wounds very well," Sauls said. "They represent what's best in the school, and also where we want to go. If we can get this year's sixth-graders to achieveacademically, and have that sense of grit, strength, cohesiveness, spirit, sisterhood, I would say we werevery successful."