Breaking Stereotypes

Fort Worth’s single-sex school for young women focuses on preparing students to be admitted to and successful in college.

When Deborah Ferguson, co-anchor of the NBC5 Today morning show, first walked the halls of the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Fort Worth, what she saw led her to commit doing whatever it takes to see that the Fort Worth ISD’s single-sex school for girls is a success.

The school first opened in August 2010 as a partnership with what is now the Young Women’s Preparatory Network. The school will graduate its first seniors in 2016. Its goal, however, is not graduation. It is college graduation.

Then-Superintendent Melody Johnson had invited Ferguson and others to join an advisory committee for the school. Turned out that Johnson had more than community ambassadors in mind. She wanted them to raise money for educational enhancements in the school that the ISD could not afford to fund.

Ferguson, as do many people in television, has the opportunity to be part of many community events. “But this one? This one is the one that really spoke to me, and I decided that whatever energy, or financial resources, or whatever it is that I can invest into this school, I’m going to do that,” she said.

She was “volun-told” to chair the group and oversee its transition into a foundation that could solicit and accept donations. The Foundation for the Young Woman’s Leadership Academy received its non-profit status last December. The Young Women’s Preparatory Network put up the seed money. It’s up to the locals to sustain it.

“While not common, the arrangement is not entirely different from a parent booster club or an alumni group that many of our schools have,” said Michael Sorum, Deputy Superintendent, Leadership, Learning, and Student Support Services for the Fort Worth school district. “It is different in the sense that it has a board and a tax-free status, but the goals are very similar.”

The district also has the Young Men’s Leadership Academy, started a little later than the women’s school, and Sorum says there’s a demand for single-sex education. And one of the district’s goals is to provide school choice for its families.

“There is a community of parents with a strong desire to have their son or daughter in a single-gender educational setting,” he said. “In the case of YWLA, we have far more applicants than space in the school.”

Prior to becoming a non-profit, Ferguson’s group was able to receive donations through the Young Women’s Preparatory Academy. But now the organization can receive them directly.

“YWLA has a strong message and culture of high expectations for its students, and one of its goals is to ensure that young women have the academic preparation to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — as well as any other fields of study the young women wish to pursue,” Sorum said.

Ferguson’s mother only had a second grade education, and she doesn’t remember her particularly stressing grades to her daughter.

“Somewhere along the way, I learned that education is kind of a great equalizer, kind of an invitation to a party,” she said. So becoming involved was an easy choice for her. She considers it a gift to invest her time and energy in a group of students where more than 70 percent come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.