Founding principal leaves behind vision for Girls Prep

Principal Josie Carbone of Girls' Prep

Somali Bikangaga

Principal Josie Carbone of Girls Prep

The day begins early at Girls Preparatory Charter School, as students are ushered in for a free breakfast and a morning meeting by 7:30 a.m. By 8, it’s either extra help on reading and writing skills, or tree poses and sun salutations at the yoga and mindfulness class in the gymnasium. Next comes a math workshop with cognitive guided instruction to help the girls become better problem solvers — and that’s all before 9 a.m.

The days at Girls Prep are also longer than most – the last class gets out at 4 p.m., and many girls stay after to participate in extracurricular activities like the school’s choir. But Principal Josie Carbone, who helped found the school at 681 Kelly St. in 2009, wants every minute she can get with her students.

“We don’t believe kids are born smart,” Carbone says. “Smart is something you get through hard work and effort.”

Carbone is featured in a new book titled “Breakthrough Principals: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Better Schools,” which profiles several school leaders in the city who have built exemplary schools in underserved communities. She has also been chosen by the school’s charter network, which also runs schools in Soundview and the Lower East Side, to become the organization’s “chief learning officer.” That means she’ll be leaving the day-to-day operations at Girls Prep, which houses 560 kids in grades pre-K through six, but she will be charged with replicating her programs here at other locations.

“She has an amazing ability to hold everyone at high expectations and believes that all children can learn and be held up to those expectations,” says Jill Grossman, one of the authors of the book, which was published by New Leaders, a school reform organization. “Every aspect of her school is run by that belief.”

Girls Prep outscores nearly every school in the area on state tests, includes two teachers in every classroom helping those with special needs, and promotes an active partnership between the parents and teachers. The school sets itself apart from others in the district by offering a single-sex education and a heavy emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. In the 2013-2014 school year, 29 percent of students met the state standards on English tests, and 41 percent of students met state standards on math tests. The citywide average is 27 percent for English and 29 percent for math. In 2012-2013, 98 percent of fourth graders passed the New York State science exam.

“As a charter school, we will be closed if we don’t show progress, so tests are important,” Carbone says. “But we don’t want kids to be fearful of testing.”

The daughter of Sicilian immigrants, Carbone was born in Boston and has lived all over the country, from Salt Lake City to Michigan to Maine. She was the first in her family to attend college, enrolling at Smith College, a single-sex university, and majoring in American studies. She joined Teach for America in the 1990s, and it was during her placement at PS 191 in Manhattan where she first recognized the disparities in the public education system in New York City. She also thought there was an opportunity in single-sex schools that didn’t exist in the public realm.

“This idea that making a single-sex public school and giving parents the option resonated with me,” Carbone says. “Single-sex education shouldn’t be just for an investment banker’s kid.”

When the charter school movement came to New York, supported heavily by Mayor Bloomberg, Carbone got on board. She started at Girls Prep Lower East Side in 2005 and opened Girls Prep Bronx four years later. The school shares a building with MS 305, separated by bright orange doors near the end of the hall at staircase G. Yellow and orange walls are lined with students’ hand-painted drawings.

There are three classes per grade, with a total of 28 students per class. Each classroom is named after distinguished women. These namesakes wear many hats, ranging from national and even international figures such as Rachel Carson, Sonia Sotomayor and J.K Rowling, to local ones, such as Majora Carter. Student uniforms consist of blue jumpers, but the girls add some personality, rocking hair clips and colorful socks and tights.

“From the very beginning, everything in this school is an option regardless of gender,” Carbone says. “You can be the fastest runner, most eloquent speaker, strongest mathematician. All of those roles are filled by girls — and that is exciting.”

According to the Brown Center on Education Policy, large proportions of parents of school-aged children want choice. In the 2012-2013 school year, more than 69,000 families applied for 18,600 available spots in charter schools in New York City, leaving more that 50,000 on waitlists.

Carbone notes that in addition to working on her curriculum, she has also worked hard to get parents involved as well. The school holds family literacy night events where teachers show parents how the school works with students. There is family math night, and a breakfast held in the school auditorium once or twice a month.

“I participate every chance I get,” says Aleah Brown, whose daughter is in second grade. “We are like a team, the teachers and the parents.”

Isa Rodriguez, a first grade teacher who was a member of the founding staff, believes that teacher-parent relationships are crucial to the success of the school.

“The parent’s voice and the parent’s involvement are valued here,” Rodriguez said.

As the school year comes to an end, Carbone said she will spend as much time as she can during her last months with children. After 18 years in school hallways, she will miss that interaction – and the history. Recently a woman she had taught in the second grade at PS 93 came in to Girls Prep to pick up her daughter, a kindergartner.

“I have been in the community for a really long time,” Carbone said. “The day-to-day with the girls will be my biggest thing I’ll miss.”


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