Leading a Diverse Girls’ School
Queens, NY, where The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria is located, is truly a melting pot, with one of the most diverse student populations anywhere. Our all-girls school, with 600 students in grades 6–12, enrolls youth who speak multiple languages, and we have some who are new to the country, to the school, and to English. A total of 63 different languages are spoken by our students’ families at home.
Not only are we focused on serving our diverse student population academically, but we want the girls and their families to feel welcome in our school community. It starts in the summer, even before the school year begins, when we host a potluck for all the new sixth-grade families. Each family brings in a dish from their home country—including a description—for a taste of the world and a chance to get to know our staff and each other.
All the information we send to families is in multiple languages: English, Spanish, Arabic, and sometimes Bengali. We have staff members who speak all those languages, so it’s not just something we do using Google translate; they make sure it reads accurately and naturally.
I’m also a big fan of using videos. I ask families to make videos in their home language so that a parent who speaks Chinese, for example, might talk about what their experience at the school has been like. It allows everybody to feel like their voice matters, and it shows that we see them and hear them.
For back-to-school night, students will make videos in their home language too, inviting families to attend and including information on how the night works and how to access the activities online (our event was still virtual this year). We record enrollment videos in multiple languages, as well; students and families share what the school is like and how it has made a difference for them.
Students as Partners and Role Models
At The Young Women’s Leadership School, we also like to take advantage of connections between students. We have some incoming sixth and ninth graders who speak no English, so we’ll pair them with a “big sister” from a higher grade who speaks their language and can serve as a buddy. The older girls see this as a way to give back, and they’re excited to do it. I think a lot of them remember their own experience with learning English, and they feel empowered by supporting someone through what they know can be a difficult process.
Our teachers also ensure that students have partners in the classrooms, and they create seating arrangements where someone just learning English will sit next to someone who is fluent in English and in their home language so they can support them in class.
Technology is helpful for us in many ways as well. There are good programs that help students translate all the digital materials for classes. But we still find there’s nothing like coming to the school—for students or their families—and hearing someone speak to you in your own language if you’re confused or have a question.
I’ve intentionally hired a very diverse staff, which includes Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali speakers. From the moment students walk into our school, and when they are in nonacademic settings, they have people they can talk to. To take it a step further, we introduce our English learners to people throughout the building who speak their language, and we show them where they work, so the student can go to that person for help during the day. We have people all over the building our students can talk to in their home language if they’re feeling nervous or lost.
The Comfort of Hearing Your Language
My main office staff members also attend every single community event we host, so there’s always someone there who can talk to parents using the familiar sound of their home language. You can almost feel the sigh of relief when someone walks in, and our staff speaks to them in a way that helps them feel connected.
But not every student’s family can visit our school in person or make time to read all the translated communications we send home. Some parents have two or three jobs or work in places where they don’t necessarily use email. What every parent does have is a cellphone, so we’re trying to identify the best tools to share information with those who might not see our emails.
We are always sending out information to families about incredible opportunities for their children because we don’t want parents to miss the chance to take advantage of them. But even if they do get the materials, it can be challenging for us to overcome cultural and language barriers with some parents. We recently sent a group of kids to a three-day sleepaway leadership camp, but fear and lack of understanding by a few parents definitely prevented some kids from applying.
So, we work on that type of communication constantly. A former student of ours will graduate from Harvard University in May; she’s our first student accepted there. But she almost didn’t go. I have a good relationship with her mother, who attended a lot of our parent events, but when her daughter got into Harvard, she didn’t want her to go. She’s Muslim, and the mother feared that her daughter would lose her roots, and she worried about the language challenges. Our school’s college counselor and I had multiple one-on-one meetings with the mother, and we also reached out to a parent network, which put her in touch with another mother of a Muslim girl who attended Harvard to help allay her concerns.
Her daughter is thriving there, but it’s an opportunity that could have been missed. I’m proud that we were able to help her take advantage of that opportunity.
Overcoming Cultural Gaps
Closer to home, some of our parents don’t want their children to attend college even here in the New York City area if it means their daughter will have to take the subway alone. As a result, we’ve started to create family college groups, in which the families of our graduates agree to send their daughters to certain colleges together, so that they can feel assured that their children have a peer network of cultural and linguistic support on campus. Our staff is working so hard to help these incredible girls become confident and independent young women, and we want them to get into the best postsecondary schools and have the best opportunities.
Some of our students’ achievements are truly inspiring. For example, our school offers a software engineering track, which students can start as young as age 11. What we’ve found that is that some of our Spanish speakers who don’t understand English yet have taken to the language of coding—basically a universal third language—and they are thriving with it. One of our girls, who speaks English and Spanish, was one of three students in the world who was selected by code.org to travel to Vatican City last year to teach the pope his first line of code.
There are advantages to being an all-girls school, and research attests to these benefits. But when you add in things like learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture, for an adolescent girl it’s much easier if you don’t have to do it in front of boys. There’s a big reduction of fear and pressure about making a mistake. In our school, there’s a lot of room to fail forward. We have this great group of girls, and we want to prepare them for the next step in their lives.
Allison Persad, EdD, is the principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria in Astoria, NY, and the co-facilitator of NASSP’s School Leaders of Color Network.