All-girls school sends first graduating class to college

10:01 p.m Monday, June 3, 2013 Local

Ana González almost quit.

She was entering her junior year and was tired of the long hours of homework and the rigorous courses at Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. She wanted a lazy summer, spending time with friends and staying up late, but instead she was stuck with a summer reading assignment.

She refused to do it, and when school started she didn’t show up to a Saturday morning class to make up the work — a standoff that ended when Principal Jeanne Goka sent a bus to her house to pick her up and take her to campus.

That intervention worked. Ana will be among the 52 girls in the inaugural graduating class from the Austin school district’s first all-girls school Saturday.

“Thankfully, they didn’t let me go,” Ana, 17, said. “This year, I got to see more of the opportunities, what this school prepared me for. I’m getting to see it’s paying off.”

Nearly half of the girls in Ana’s class did not stick with it. But those who did say it changed their lives. All of them are accepted into college, and more than half come from minority or low-income families. Like Ana, 73 percent of the Class of 2013 will be the first in their families to attend college.

“You don’t give up on them,” Goka said. “We surround the girls when they need the love and support. We all do this together.”

The school is named for the late Gov. Ann Richards, whose youngest daughter, Ellen Richards, serves as chairwoman emeritus of its foundation.

“We’re creating a level field for every girl from every background and there was nothing more important to my mom,” Ellen Richards said. “I think my mother would just be ecstatic at what has been achieved there by the girls and the staff.”

The school teaches 680 girls in grades six through 12. Nearly three-quarters are Hispanic or African-American and 60 percent come from low-income families. The school’s demographics mirror those of the Austin community.

The school touts its rigor, but the academic standards have contributed to the washout of some students, administrators and students said.

“It’s demanding,” Richards said. “The course work and the expectations are high. Not everyone is cut out for it. And some of the girls want to be in the co-ed environment, so it is not a good fit for everyone. But the girls who did stay got everything and more than they expected.”

The school opened in 2007 with 75 girls, but the Class of 2013 grew to 97 going into seventh grade. Of the 97 students who started, 45 have left Ann Richards.

Most left for a more traditional co-ed high school, or to join magnet schools within the district, or because they don’t like the career pathways offered at the school, Goka said.

And some left because the school was just too difficult for them, students and administrators said.

It’s unclear how successful single-gender schools nationally are in retaining students, but since their approval by the U.S. Department of Education in 2006, single-sex schools continue to gain popularity, increasing from about a dozen in 2002 to more than 100 in 2011. In Texas, the Irma Rangel Leadership School in Dallas, a school after which Ann Richards was modeled, lost about 16 percent of its first graduating class in 2009.

At Ann Richards, the Class of 2014 also has a high attrition rate, with 55 girls left. But the lower grades are larger, with approximately 94 in the Class of 2015 and 97 in the Class of 2016. Goka and some seniors said the first two classes didn’t know what to expect, but as younger grades have watched them, they’ve had more desire to stick with it.

“These girls that are with us now are pioneers,” Goka said. “They took a chance.”

The girls who remained also are close. They experienced everything for the first time together and call each other sisters, a term that took getting used to.

“We are family,” Tamsyn Stonebarger, 18, said. “When we came into it, we were told we are sisters. At first, we thought, ‘This is kind of weird,’ but after years go on, we get it. We are sisters. I like being the older sisters. We set expectations really high. To see our little sisters succeed… it’s rewarding to be there for them.”

Ann Richards has a strong focus on science, technology, engineering and math. Entering high school, the girls must choose one of three career pathways: biomedical sciences, engineering or media technology.

Girls who qualify must go through a competitive application process and are selected by lottery. To apply, they must submit a hand-written letter, a report card with their attendance and their tardy reports, as well as their results on the state-mandated test. They also must have teacher recommendations. Three-quarters of students must come from schools where the majority of students are from low-income homes.

The school begins preparing the girls for college in their first year, requiring internships and sending them on college visits. They also receive individual college advising for themselves and their families and assistance with college searches and financial aid.

Many of the Ann Richards students keep in contact with the friends who have left the school and said they often hear that those girls regret it. Some have gotten lost among the masses at bigger high schools, the students said, or their grades have slipped, something the Ann Richards students aren’t allowed to get away with.

“It’s hard to see them because their lives are not OK,” said Belen Juarez, 18. “Here they make sure we’re in check. They make sure we are doing the right thing. They were always behind us. Yes, it was sometimes annoying. If you were failing, they made you go to mandatory tutoring, but all of that helped because they were behind us, pushing us.”

For Ana, who was born in Mexico and whose parents attended only elementary school, Ann Richards has meant a total change of direction.

She saw other girls go through the same thing she faced in the summer of her junior year, when she drew the line at reading “The Devil in the White City” and writing an analysis of it.

They’d cry together — including the first year of finals — and they got through.

Last year, Ana raised money for seniors at the school who had been brought into the country as children without legal documentation, so they could apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which would allow them to work legally, among other benefits.

Now she is heading to the University of Texas at El Paso this fall. She plans to study criminal justice and has set her sights on joining the FBI in hopes of battling the drug wars on the Mexican border that have taken the lives of thousands.

“I have a sister in first grade and because of the opportunities I got to do here, she looks up to me a lot,” Ana said. “I realized what a big advantage I have here. You will get tired of working hard but you have to stay strong. You have to believe that one day it’s going to pay off.”

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