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Preparing Young Women for 21st Century Is Goal of Astoria High School

By Katie Honan | December 12, 2016 7:35am
 Principal Allison Persad is boosting STEM and after-school offerings at the all-girls school.
Principal Allison Persad is boosting STEM and after-school offerings at the all-girls school.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

ASTORIA — At the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, Allison Persad’s focus for the school is to “build the whole girl.”

What that means for her, now in her second year as the principal of the 6th-12th grade all-girls school, is reshaping the students to be ready for the global world.

Persad, the child of immigrants, grew up in Queens Village attending P.S. 33, I.S. 109 and Hillcrest High School, and later Queens College, C.W. Post and, most recently, St. John’s University for her doctorate. She worked as an English teacher for 10 years before moving into administration.

The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria is part of a larger network of schools in the Young Women’s Leadership Network, founded by Ann Tisch, who launched the first school 20 years ago in East Harlem.

TYWLS opened in Astoria 10 years ago in a former Catholic school, and Persad joined as principal two years ago. She was drawn to the school, which has a large immigrant population with 63 languages spoken.

The school already had strong arts and English programs, but she wanted to boost its STEM offerings. She’s added Advanced Placement classes through an initiative from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña. And thanks to a $500,000 grant from Councilman Costa Constantinides, they’ve added a STEAM lab in the school for students to do everything from code to create apps.

Persad's goal is “to re-map the 21st century woman,” she said.

“We’re preparing girls for jobs that don’t exist yet, preparing girls for roles that they don’t even know they’re capable of doing.”

She spoke to DNAinfo about her vision and mission at the school.

What inspired you to get into education?

It was really my 5th grade teacher that really influenced me to become a teacher. I came here, and my parents worked jobs, multiple jobs. They didn’t finish college themselves. She just took me in and made me fall in love with reading, she gave me my first book — “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” — and it was a special gift for me. She would just do all of these small things within the classroom to me and other students to really just encourage us, and I saw the power, the transformation when one person believes in you. I fell into this work, just feeling like there’s no greater calling. There’s no greater calling than feeling you can impact the lives of others.

What made you want to work at The Young Women’s Leadership School?

I was so drawn to the school. Being an all-girls school, being able to lead a group of young women into the future and think about impacting their lives, there’s no greater gift. I see it as a privilege. I’m humbled every single day to have this opportunity to impact girls and women. When you change the life of a girl, you’re changing the life of a family, you’re changing the life of a community, and then eventually you’re changing generations that are going to come. So having that chance to do that is just amazing.

The six to 12 [grade] model also is a draw. It has its challenges because it is running two schools [middle and high schools]. There are two sets of expectations in both the state and the city, testing expectations, curriculum expectations, social-emotional expectations, and needs that are very different. So it really does feel that it’s two schools but in Astoria we run it very much like one school.

What did you want to improve or change at the school?

I took a look at everything that was great here and I said to myself, 'How do we take what’s great and make it better, and think about how to give every girl every possible opportunity they can have for the future that they want — and a future that they don’t even know exists?' For me it would be to re-map the 21st Century woman... We’re preparing them to be confident, critical thinkers — and most importantly I really want to focus on the humanity part of this. The character of the girls. This re-mapping of the 21st Century woman is how I see my vision here.

The changes have been focused on making sure that every student is on the path to college readiness. We just don't want students to come out of here with test scores we want them to come out with real 21st Century skills in a competitive global market. I’m no longer thinking we are in competition with other 6 to 12 schools, other schools in NYC; we’re in a global market. There are no walls. The more and more we do around having girls understand that premise, and the way they approach their learning, then we’ll know we’re successful.

How does the school benefit from being part of the school network?

There’s a tremendous amount of support and connectivity from The Young Women’s Leadership School. They provide everything from a full-time college bound counselor, through CBI [College Bound Initiative]; they fund her salary. She’s a full-time college-bound counselor, her whole job is to process applications, help girls find the right schools, work on FAFSA [free application for federal student aid], recommendations — everything around college and college applications. From sixth grade, the girls are going on college trips. It becomes a part of their vernacular. It’s not if I’m going to college, it’s when I’m going to college, and what’s going to be the best fit.

They provide us a wealth of resources, and they bring in, having the girls meet, see and hear from strong female mentors. Mentorship is one of the key aspects of growth. We host a series of activities both in house and sending them out so they can get exposed to strong women industry leaders. They come in, everybody from aviation pilots to leaders in finance, to talk about ‘how did I get here.’

What’s the one thing you hope the girls leave the school knowing?

As women, we can only shatter glass ceilings, and become better and stronger — together.