All girls’ schools have a transformational impact on their alumnae. Currently, only 1% of young women in the United States graduate from girls’ schools; however, a staggering 1 in 4 Congresswomen are alumnae of girls’ schools. New York City and Long Island are home to some of the most successful and storied single-gender independent schools in the country. Yet, there is not a single all-girls public, tuition-free school in Nassau County. Kwenda Collegiate Girls strives to be an additional high-quality option for families and students seeking a single-gender, college preparatory setting.
From kindergarten through eighth grade, Kwenda is rooted in the firm belief that every girl has unlimited potential. They are deeply committed to ensuring that our girls will, above all else, achieve at the highest levels while simultaneously having their voices heard, affirmed, and valued. Kwenda means “go” in Swahili – Christina Perry, lead founder of Kwenda believes that girls should receive an education that allows them to “go”. Whether it’s earning opportunities through college graduation or the courage to lead in life from the boardroom to the White House.
Christina Perry, Lead Founder of Kwenda All Girls Collegiate School shared in a poignant conversation with Team Sugaberry.
Kwenda means “go” in Swahili. Share more about what that means in the context of the school’s philosophy and unique approach to education.
Our school was born out of two values – love and liberation for girl-identifying and young women (inclusive of trans and gender non-conforming youth). We believe our girls deserve safe spaces of affirmation, rigor, and healing – that raise them up to be autonomous decision-makers in their own lives. We believe that when a girl is empowered with an excellent education, she unlocks a multitude of choices for her own trajectory. Education equals agency.
Our name “Kwenda” is a nod to our core belief that every girl has a powerful voice and should decide for herself where she ends up in life. We believe the role of a school is to help girls develop that voice and help them get to wherever they decide for themselves. Every detail of our school – from the language our teachers and staff use to our meticulously designed curriculum to the cut and style of our student uniform – is designed to reinforce the message that our girls are powerful and whole just as they are.
It’s long been debated whether or not single-sex schooling is effective. Is there any data that helps make the case for the all-girls schooling?
The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (of which Kwenda is a proud member) has published a number of studies underscoring the academic and social-emotional benefits of girls’ schools for young women and their trajectories.
I think what is missing from the narrative is a special focus on Black and Brown girls and young women and the impact of spaces designed specifically to support their healthy growth and development. Studies show that Black students who have Black teachers early on in their educational career are more likely to stay in school, graduate, and go to college (source). Some researchers chalk that up to having more Black role models but some – with whom I personally agree – point to the intangible empathy and recognition of self in another that Black students and teachers often share. Black teachers are less likely to perceive Black students as “angry” (source) and are more likely to hold higher academic expectations (source) for students than white teachers.
In true intersectional fashion – let’s layer on the lens of gender. Our girls are both Black and female. Melissa Harris-Perry talks about the “crooked room” or the weight of skewed stereotypes thrust upon us that deny our humanity and distort our self-perception. This is just an internal struggle – in our jobs, in our homes, when walking down the street we have to navigate the world’s perception of us and the many ways we are policed, rendered less visible, and hypersexualized. At Kwenda, we hypothesize that a school that recognizes how race and gender color our girls’ experiences will have a dramatically positive impact. Unfortunately, as named by Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw the Center for Intersectionality and Policy Studies at Columbia Law School notes, Black girls are often left out of the narrative surrounding school experience in research. Dr. Monique Morris, in her book, Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, highlights some of the educational spaces that are working for Black girls – places where girls are placed at the center of their design.
You attended Spelman, one of the most prestigious all women’s schools in the country. Can you talk about your personal experience there and how it informed or inspired the work you are doing now?
Spelman College changed my life. It was the first time that I had a Black teacher. I get to Spelman and there are required courses on Black women and how we show up in the world. We’re reading Melissa Harris-Perry, diving deep into thinkers like Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker. Spelman was my window into the diversity, richness, and complexity of Blackness. For me, it kicked off the process of “unlearning” many of the harmful, misogynistic, anti-black (and often invisible) messages about myself and Black women that so insidiously pervades so much of American popular culture.
When I think of Spelman, I have so much gratitude in my heart. Much of the vision for Kwenda looks to replicate this experience for the youngest members of our communities. Our hope is that our girls don’t have to waste years “unlearning” – they grow eyes wide open to their complexities, their beauty, and their power from day one.
Kwenda aims to reimagine education with “girls at the center” – tell us more about that means and why it’s imperative to have girls-centric education options.
To be clear, the vast majority of school models simply weren’t designed for Black and Brown girls. That’s why we see our girls’ hair and body policed by racist/sexist dress code policies. We see that the data bears out that Black girls are significantly more likely to be suspended than their white peers all across the country. The National Women’s Law Center found that Black girls are “more likely to receive multiple suspensions than any other gender or race of students.” The gap starts early, with Black girls making up 20 percent of girls enrolled, but 54 percent of girls suspended (source).
“The National Women’s Law Center found that Black girls are “more likely to receive multiple suspensions than any other gender or race of students.” The gap starts early, with Black girls making up 20 percent of girls enrolled, but 54 percent of girls suspended (source).”
Kwenda is a “gender-conscious” school – we recognize the ways that gender and perceptions of gender affect our lives. There are so many beautiful and powerful things about being a girl in this country. However, we must also recognize that our girls, particularly our girls and gender-expansive youth of color, are uniquely vulnerable as a result of the compounding effects of institutional racism and sexism. So yes, our girls receive a highly rigorous education that is designed to ensure they are ready for the nation’s top high schools when they leave us in 8th grade. They also receive an education that recognizes that the playing field isn’t yet equal for all genders.
Our curriculum highlights intersectionality. Our girls take daily Voice and Empowerment classes. Girls show up in every position of student government and leadership. We’re also a feminist school – which means we take our gender-consciousness one step further. We recognize the impact gender has on our lives AND we actively seek to root out those policies/procedures that limit economic, social, and political freedom based on gender.
“Our girls take daily Voice and Empowerment classes. Girls show up in every position of student government and leadership.”
A central part of your mission is equity for girls. And while a college education is an important part of that, Black women still draw around two-thirds the average earnings of white men once in the workforce. Is there anything we can do at the earlier stage of education to ensure that once these girls achieve college degrees they can see the same ROI as their white male counterparts, once they graduate from college?
This is an extension of our vision as a feminist school – empower our girls to take on the system. We want our girls to go in eyes wide open about the game. Know the truth around equal pay and demand what you’re worth. Challenge sexist policies and systems. That being said, we recognize that it’s going to take more than “leaning in” to truly get to equity. We need systematic change.
“We want our girls to go in eyes wide open about the game. Know the truth around equal pay and demand what you’re worth….Rail against the machine.”
Outside of school walls – Rail against the machine. Call out sexist policies and challenge traditional systems that were designed to only meet the needs of men. Call on our male allies to do the same. Raise children who believe that we are all worthy of dignity and have inherent value. More women running for office. Supporting women running for office. Spaces of healing and collaboration and support for Black women.
You’re proposing to open the school in the Fall of 2021 and you’ve been on this journey for a while. Can you share what’s required to get the school officially approved and share more insight into what it takes to launch a charter school?
Our school is now proposed to open in Fall 2022 given the impact of the novel coronavirus on schools and school budgets. While we have been on this journey for several years, our team does operate in a spirit of gratitude. The extended timeline has allowed us to deepen our relationship with our neighborhood and the larger school community. We will resubmit our application to our state authorizer – the SUNY Charter School Institute – in early 2021. Our authorizer will decide if our application meets their rigorous bar and if we are approved we will open our doors in Fall 2022. Aside from a researched-based, sound academic model, we also need all the community support we can get.
Politics are real. We’re setting out to build a school to liberate Black and Brown girls. Of course, the journey is going to be political. Charter school politics across the country have soured for many reasons. The narrative around charter schools, largely informed by the experiences of White-led large charter networks, have been the source of much controversy. What we know is this, Kwenda was designed with our girls at the center – we are a gender-conscious, anti-racist school that’s open to all – no admissions test and no tuition. We have garnered so much support to date and cannot wait to open our doors in the coming years.
How can the Sugaberry community support your efforts specifically with Kwenda, but also more broadly in developing more girls-centric education platforms and options?
We’ve found that people are really struck by our quirky, feminist little school. We’re a small team though and to-date everything has been word of mouth. Sharing our story helps our school dramatically. Donations of any sort – time (sharing our story, sharing [on] social media), connection (networking on behalf of the school), and money – are deeply appreciated. More broadly, doing the work of demanding that our education institutions do right by our girls. Ask about the suspension rates by gender. Push schools to include anti-bias training (with a keen eye on how bias shows up for girls of color) for all staff members.
Black and Brown girl-centric education is freedom work.
Sign the petition, let the State University of New York’s (SUNY) Charter School Institute know that you believe in this school and its goal of opening its doors in the Fall of 2022.
Learn more about Kwenda All Girls Collegiate Charter School here.
Partner with Kwenda on IG: Kwenda Collegiate Girls (@kwendacollegiategirls) • Instagram photos and videos and remember to speak to your child’s school administrators to include anti-bias training. Stay connected in the spirit of advocacy and education Mamas.