Innovative Brooklyn School Struggles to Enroll More Girls

By Meredith Hoffman | February 9, 2012 7:13am 

WILLIAMSBURG — To student Jeremy Oquendo, the meager number of girls at Frances Perkins Academy is an academic blessing.

"When classes are equally girls and boys, it's distracting," said the high school senior, who attends the innovative public school at 50 Bedford Ave., which counts only a quarter of its students as girls. "It helps boys focus."

While Oquendo may appreciate the lopsided numbers, principal Jocelyn Santana isn't satisfied.

She is struggling to recruit more girls, hoping females can benefit from the academy’s rare integrative model, in which most students spend two days a week in real-world internships.

"Mothers are apprehensive about sending their girls here, when they come to orientation and see all the boys," Santana acknowledged.

Last school year, only 40 of the school's 172 students were girls.

At this year’s open houses, Santana said she plans to highlight placements that might appeal more to females, including jobs in the fashion industry, at day-care centers and in women-run law practices.

The school, founded in 2008, is part of the Big Picture Network, which also includes the Bronx Guild High School and focuses on practice-based learning. Oquendo, for example, did his internship at the Army Recruiting Center — he has since decided to enlist — but there are many other job options at theaters, gyms and museums.

Santana and the school’s internship coordinator, Naya T. Johnson, attribute the gender imbalance to Frances Perkins’ location inside a predominantly male school, the 881-student Automotive High School, which is known for its mechanics training. Automotive enrolled 691 males and just 32 females during the 2010-11 academic year.

"It’s like when you go to one restaurant with two people and see 15 in another," said Johnson. "It doesn’t mean one’s any better than the other — people have to catch onto the fact that girls are here."

Frances Perkins does not even have its own floor, instead sharing two floors with Automotive.

"Auto boys come to our floors to look at the girls," said Santana, adding that no negative incidents had occurred. "Thank God we haven’t had a love triangle."

Kiyoshi Tyler, a 10th-grader at Frances Perkins, said some of her friends had been intimidated by all the boys in the cafeteria when their school shared the lunchtime space with Automotive. Since then, meal times have been staggered.

"You keep your mind focused, and you’ll be fine," said Tyler, imagining what she would tell prospective female students.

For Tyler, her recent internship was well worth any demographic adjustments — she apprenticed at a fashion organization and magazine, Freedom Star, where her mentor encouraged her to interview diverse groups of people in the city, and to put together a hard-copy magazine and website.

"It helped give us an open mind," she said about her and her friends’ experience at the internship. "We made everything from scratch."

Tena Lodge, who was one of the academy’s first 13 students to graduate early on Jan. 30, said she never felt affected by the gender discrepancy. Lodge, 17, said her biggest adjustment was from traditional learning to the internship model.

 

"Sometimes it felt pointless," she said, explaining that she had plenty of credits without internship credits to graduate. She called the extra work "annoying."

She's had five varied internships at the YMCA, the New York City Transit Museum, Coney Island's New York Aquarium,  Precious Minds Day Care and Freedom Star.

"It gives you outside experience," she said, acknowledging the benefits. "Like learning to be professional."

Santana admitted the school has struggled with more than just gender balance — it faces a challenge of bringing kids up to speed academically, while giving them internship opportunities.

"It’s an uphill battle," she said, noting that the school has had to drop its internships for 9th-graders to set them on track for accumulating enough credits to graduate.

A fourth of Frances Perkins students need special education, and test scores are particularly low in social studies, Santana said. The ratings have improved since she became principal in 2010, she noted.

"We have to spend a lot of time managing the space and keeping the flow moving peacefully," she said of the school's location within Automotive.

"We have all these competing priorities — we're creating a hybrid model, but we still have to graduate students on time."