At Uncommon Schools, Helping Girls Rise

Faculty and students celebrate

A first-ever two-day retreat for the young women at Uncommon Schools Excellence Girls Middle Academy in Crown Heights was called “Girls Rising,” so it was appropriate that the retreat started off with a close examination of Maya Angelou’s famous poem, “Still I Rise.”

In the poem, Angelou uses the word “you” 15 times. “Who do you think Maya Angelou was referring to?” principal Sofia Mohammed asked the students.

“Her oppressors,” one student responded, launching into an explanation that could easily pass muster in a college classroom. Other students responded with an analysis of equal sophistication.

That the students at Excellence Girls are so facile at breaking down the poetry of one of America’s most brilliant wordsmiths is no mistake. Excellence Girls was recognized for its academic achievement with a national Blue Ribbon award in 2016.

Like all Uncommon Schools, the all-girls school is focused on preparing its students for success in college and beyond, and its leaders know that a complete education goes beyond what can be learned from books alone. So the idea of a two-day retreat was born to focus on issues such as dealing with stress, loving the skin you are in, practicing gratitude and projecting confidence.

“We want all of our girls to know that they are intelligent, that they are beautiful, and that their voice and what they want to say matters,” said Julie Jackson, Chief Schools Officer K-8 for Uncommon Schools.

An Uncommon Schools student discusses poet Maya Angelou and her work.

Dozens of strong, powerful women pulled from the ranks of the 24 Uncommon Schools public charter schools in Brooklyn led the seminar. Uncommon Schools are also located in Rochester and Troy, New York, Newark and Camden, New Jersey and Boston.

“These women are breaking barriers and breaking stereotypes,” Mohammed said. “They are here in solidarity with Excellence Girls and they are showing the power of sisterhood.”

In addition to having some of the highest student achievement results in New York state, Uncommon Schools boasts among the highest diversity figures among schools. More than 60% of its teachers in New York City are people of color and nearly half of its school leaders are black or Latino. Taking two days to have those role models share their wisdom and inspiration with the 400 girls was a first for the organization.

Girls are rising up at Uncommon Schools.

“Today is a new day,” Mohammed told the students at a morning assembly. “Together we are rising. We’re fighting the narrative that girls just have to be pretty. And we’re fighting the narrative that girls cannot be masters of their own destiny. It’s time for us to rise up.”

In one seminar called, “Love the Skin You Are In,” the students watched a video with negative depictions of women, then discussed their feelings about it.

In another seminar, the students learned how to project confidence using body language and their voice. They learned that posture, eye contact and facial expressions all have an impact on emotions and on the way others perceive them, while the volume, pitch and rate of their voice can impact the message they are trying to convey.

The students also had the opportunity to create vision boards that encouraged them to think about their goals and their purpose in life. “Voices of the Sisterhood,” focused on the power of poetry, including Angelou’s, “Phenomenal Woman.”

Additionally, the students were introduced to the power of yoga and breathing to help reduce stress in their lives.

Uncommon Schools called the two-day retreat a success, and organizers said they may consider future retreats at its all-boys schools or its co-ed schools.

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