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Brooklyn students run with U.N. charge to honor young women

Principal Talana Bradley stood in front of her students on Thursday waving a copy of the day’s top news story, about the shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan.

Yousafzai was shot by Taliban extremists because she advocated for women’s education in Pakistan, Bradley told the all-female student body at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Brooklyn.

“We take for granted being in a place that not only allows you to be educated but promotes success and greatness,” Bradley said.

Bradley’s exhortations kicked off the Williamsburg school’s celebration of the “International Day of the Girl,” a day that the United Nations designated last December. The school drew high-profile women to an event that 10th-grade student government members had spent nine months planning.

The school currently serves students in grades six through 10, but it will expand to 12th grade by 2014. The 10th grade students behind today’s events will be part of the school’s first graduating class.

A morning assembly, live-streamed to the other four Young Women’s Leadership Schools in New York City, featured prominent guests including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Ann Shoket, editor-in-chief of Seventeen Magazine. It also featured some mixed messages about what young women should value most, but the bottom line was clear: Girls can change the world.

“This day exemplifies what we value about student leaders,” said assistant principal Cristina Jacobs. “These students want to see change in their community — their desire to see this day is really the reason we did it.”

Back in February, the “Day of the Girl” celebration was just a “small seed of an idea,” Bradley said. But she said the students ran with the idea, meeting over the summer with student government advisor Rebekah Corace to write their own proclamation of the “International Day of the Girl” that Quinn read aloud at the assembly. They also wrote and performed an original song, “Beautiful Here We Go,” that urged young women to feel confident in their inner beauty.

“It was a lot of work,” said 10th-grader Destine Brown about the planning process. “It seemed to go by so quick — like we didn’t have time to plan.”

Jacobs said other students’ participation in the assembly exemplified the way students at YWLS grow to think like leaders.

“The sixth-graders were full of energy; they knew it was an exciting day,” she said. “But the 10th-graders were asking important questions like ‘Where did you go to college?’ and ‘How do you start a business?’ I like looking at the range and seeing how they are going to grow over the years.”

This kind of growth isn’t measured by the city’s annual school progress reports, which only evaluate growth largely based on student test scores. YWLS’s middle school this year received a “C” on its progress report, after getting an A in 2011.

Bradley said the grading system does not the ways that her students demonstrate excellence, such as by showing leadership. But she said she wouldn’t want the school to be judged on student leadership efforts if it meant that the motivation for such efforts didn’t come from the students’ own passions.

“I don’t want students to begin to do things because of public recommendation or a ranking system,” she said. “I would never want the girls to do things just so that the school looks good — they should do things so that they can realize their dreams.”

And there was no shortage of dreams at the “International Day of the Girl” assembly. The students who organized the event want to bring the “Day of the Girl” into the rest of the community, starting with the Williamsburg Community Center right next to their school.

“Our goal is for everyone to know that every girl across the globe is amazing,” said Deida St. Auge, a 10th-grader.

To help spread the message, Quinn spoke about her own all-girls education and said she hopes to see some of the student leaders at City Hall next summer as part of the City Council’s high school internship program.

Seventeen Magazine’s Shoket focused on how young women are changing the world through communication. She encouraged the audience to start develop a social media presence and interact with their favorite celebrities on Twitter. She also told those interested in fashion and beauty to become experts by reading and writing about the subjects, and she mentioned that Seventeen has open casting calls for models.

Shoket was accompanied by Lindsay Brown, who beat over 70,000 applicants to win the magazine’s “Pretty Amazing” competition.

Brown spoke about losing her full scholarship at the University of Notre Dame when she quit the school’s soccer team to focus on teaching soccer to girls in Nepal, Cambodia, and Nairobi. Brown encouraged the Young Women’s Leadership students to “dream big.”

According to school administrators, that won’t be a problem for their students.

“At this school, we never have to think about what we’ll do next, because the students will do that,” Jacobs said.

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