- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

NEW YORK Like many mothers across the country, Gwendolyn Jones smiled through tears as her daughter, Tanisha, accepted her high school diploma. "I am extremely proud," she said. "My daughter has become a fabulous young lady."

Grandfather Clarence was there, too, clapping up a storm. "This is only the second graduating class," he said.

But this graduation was from no ordinary institution. The Women's Leadership School in East Harlem is for girls only, mostly black and Hispanic, and the only one of its kind in the city. The school is also the survivor of a barrage of attacks from Manhattan's ultraliberal establishment, who have tried to close it down from the day the doors opened six years ago.

Alma Powell, the wife of Colin L. Powell, as commencement speaker praised the graduates' achievements and warned them about pitfalls ahead: "And whenever a handsome stranger comes up with a sweet mouth talking, run the other way," she said as the audience exploded in laughter. It was the kind of statement one could say to young women, as well as a fresh take on the argument that students, especially from minority communities, do better in single-sex schools.

Michael Meyers was also in the audience at the ceremony Tuesday in the Museum of Modern Art. He joined in widespread admiration for the students even though he worked hard to close the school.

As executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Mr. Meyers, who is black, said he finds the school "inherently discriminatory" because it violates 1972 federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex.

It is not sex separation that has made the school successful, he says, but more money, mentors, small class size and screened students all improvements he would like to see throughout the public school system.

"When you say girls can't go to school with boys because they are disruptive, that blames the pupils," he said.

In 1996, Mr. Meyers joined forces with the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) and filed a complaint asking for intervention from the U.S. Department of Education.

Nothing happened until this year, when the promise of new federal guidelines, which grew out of an education bill signed by President Bush in January, indicated that single-sex schools could apply for federal funding.

The NYCLU would not comment on the new status of the school, but NOW President Matthea Marquart said the Harlem school is being used as a "smoke screen" to mask the ills of the public school system. "Separating students out by gender does not ensure quality education," she said.

Although part of the public school system, the academy in Spanish Harlem has an unlikely founder and patron in Ann Rubenstein Tisch, wife of Andrew Tisch, an heir to the Loews Corp. fortune and member of a family well known for its philanthropy. Mrs. Tisch said a foundation she established provided 2 percent of the funding, while the rest came from public sources. She also established an all-girls school in Chicago.

The Harlem academy teaches grades seven through 12 and has 365 students, 34 of whom graduated this week. About 67 percent live with families that fall below the poverty line; 59 percent are Hispanic, 40 percent are black and 1 percent are of mixed race.

Mrs. Tisch points out that in both last year's class and the class of 2002, all the students went on to four-year colleges, except for one who joined the Air Force and another who joined the Navy. All students read above grade level after the second year, she said, and everyone passed the Regents exams.

"Before people shut down schools that work, they should say, 'Who am I to do that?' We are trying to address the desperation of parents and exasperation with the public system."

The faculty at the school is mainly white and includes a full-time counselor who takes students to college campuses. The student newspaper adviser, Don Snyder, a former NBC News producer, invites minority television news people to the school to motivate his students. He says the absence of "female-male distractions is what makes the school work."

"What they need most is to believe in themselves, to believe you can make it." To critics who call the school elitist, he had this to say: "An ancient Jewish philosopher said, 'You save one person, you save civilization.'"

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