Perhaps the most raucous Spelling Bee in history took place earlier this month at the Brown Center at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
That night the auditorium rocked with the fervor of a college pep rally due in large part to the jaunty performances of the Coppin State University Pep Band during the glitzy fundraiser for the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
But, the collegiate zeal was embodied most in the young students of the school in attendance, cheering wildly for the competitors, which included several of Baltimore’s corporate and civic movers and shakers, and for themselves. Because the unofficial mantra of BLSYW (or “bliss”), is, “not if we go to college, but when we go to college.”
And the young woman who perhaps shined brightest that night at the Spelling Bee was 14-year-old Iyanna Hollingsworth, an eighth-grader at BLSYW and a proud member of the school’s inaugural class in 2009.
She was the star of a short documentary presented that night, which depicted a day in her academic life; rising early, leaving her home in a rough and tumble West Baltimore neighborhood, traveling to her grandmother’s house and then traveling some more to her school at what was formerly the YWCA in Mount Vernon on the corner of Park and Franklin.
“I think that I became more mature because in elementary school they always baby you,” Hollingsworth said of her personal growth at BLSYW. “But, in this school…They push me so much and challenge me…it’s had an impact on me.”
And Hollingsworth says since the day she was selected (by lottery) to attend BLSYW the impact has rippled throughout her family as well.
“I was so shocked I cried, me and my family cried because I was so happy to be in a leadership school,” she explained.
“Because my mom wants me to be a leader non-stop, I have to be a leader when I’m at home with my cousins. I’m an inspiration to my girl cousins. I love it so much here,” she added.
The charismatic eighth-grader has set lofty goals for herself once she graduates from the school, which will expand to include 12th grade by 2016. She lists her college preferences as UCLA, Georgetown University and the University of Maryland. And she understands a lofty work ethic is needed and expects to meet her academic goals.
“If my grades are below a 70 then I’m in trouble with my parents, so I always have to keep my grades up,” Hollingsworth said.
“I’m always worried about having all my work done before I do anything else, like before I go to parties or worry about trips I have to have everything completed, keep myself in check.”
The air of high expectations permeates the school, from the college prep curriculum, to the burgeoning rowing team, to an area in a hallway set up like a typical college dorm room.
Lorna Hanley, the school’s principal says she’s obsessed with her young women attending and succeeding in college and all that entails.
“College, four-year-college, that’s all I think about,” she said from her office.
“I see these girls in 2016 walking across our stage and in a couple of days after that packing up and hitting someone’s college campus,” she added.
Hanley, a graduate of Morgan State University and the College of Notre Dame of Maryland took all of 2008 to prepare for the opening of the charter school in 2009. And because entrance is based solely on a lottery selection process, BLSYW has girls of diverse backgrounds culturally, academically and financially.
“We have almost every zip code here,” Hanley said. “We have girls who live in extremely affluent neighborhoods in Federal Hill and girls who live in some more challenging neighborhoods in Cherry Hill and they all come together in one beautiful pot here.”
“We have girls who may be four years above their academic level and you may have girls two and three grade levels below their academic level and we push them all the same way towards college.”
And Hanley says that means meeting the young women where they are without compromising academically.
“I think just the standard and refusing to lower it; we will support you and provide all those steps to get you up there, but we’re not going to come down,” she said.
BLSYW is modeled after the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, which opened in 1996 and has a 95 percent graduation rate, and 100 percent of the students have been accepted to college for the past eight years.
When Brenda Brown Rever, BLSYW’s founder was invited to the East Harlem school by her daughter years ago, the seeds for the birth of BLSYW were sown.
“My daughter invited me to come and see this school in New York that we had given some money for a summer program,” recalled Brown Rever, a leader in Baltimore’s philanthropic and education communities.
“They made eye contact and they shook your hand and these girls were in the sixth-grade and they had a presence about themselves and they had some self esteem because they had been selected and they were learning what it meant to be leaders in the community. And you know I could not get them out of my mind…it just stayed with me,” she added.
What inspired Brown Rever in East Harlem manifested in Baltimore by 2009. But, she says it may not have been possible maybe just a few years earlier.
“Ten years ago if you would have asked private, ordinary people to put money into Baltimore City schools they would have looked at you like you were out of your mind,” she said.
Today, because of, “Waiting for Superman,” (the award-winning public education documentary) and because of the charter schools and this whole entire movement…people say, `what can I do to help?’ That is the difference and they will give money because they trust you…they can come here and see we are making a difference,” she added.
“We need to make our city great and part of making our city great is making our education great.”