Cycles of Success

Jahleese Hadley reflects on GLOW’s first and future graduating classes

Jahleesehadley061In May, the Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington (GLOW) marked an important milestone when its maiden cohort of 52 graduates turned the tassel. This month, as the graduates set off to start the next chapter of their education at 19 different college campuses, GLOW’s director of college access JAHLEESE HADLEY is preparing to start the college admissions process anew with the next cohorts of rising seniors. These students, she says, are benefitting from those who came before them. “For our older kids, they didn’t have a model ahead of them. When our first graduating class was in eighth grade, they were the oldest kids in the building,” Hadley says. “Our younger students have that trajectory to see. That has had a positive impact on our school culture, and it helps us to maintain that stamina when we inevitably have really hard days.”

Hadley was hired to build GLOW’s college access program in 2016, when the single-gender public charter school welcomed its first class of sixth graders. Seven years later, Hadley tasted the fruits of her labor when GLOW’s first seniors completed the college admissions process, raking in more than $3 million in merit scholarships with a 96% acceptance rate. As a graduate of one of GLOW’s sister schools, The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, Hadley channels her educational experience in her work with GLOW students.  “It reminds me that this is not just about the report I have to fill out at the end of the year about outcomes. It’s about kids’ lives. It was about my life. It was about my best friend’s life, and how our lives were changed by the access that we had to a world we might not have been exposed to otherwise,” Hadley says.

Shaped by the educational exposure provided at her own all-girls high school, Hadley arrived at college ready to study engineering. She switched tacks when she realized her interests lie in more human-centered work, but today, she still sees herself as an engineer of sorts. Instead of designing buildings or bridges, she designs programs of support for students. “I love building systems and I love using my critical thinking skills to interrogate things we’re already doing and try to make it better,” she says.

Those skills are serving Hadley today as she and colleague ALEXIA SHANK apply the lessons learned from shepherding GLOW’s first graduating class to improve and refine the school’s college access program. As students across the region, including those at GLOW, prepare to return to the classroom this month, WILMA caught up with Hadley to discuss the success of the school’s first senior class and how that success will fuel future classes.

Are there any lessons learned that you’ll apply for GLOW’s rising cohorts of seniors?

One of the ways in which we changed our programming, and we learned this directly from our seniors, is to start college applications – the nuts and bolts of getting the application ready, working on those essays – early.  We’ve started that in 11th grade now, whereas our first class started that at the beginning of their senior year. With this rising senior class, they’re entering their senior year more prepared, and more importantly, less overwhelmed by the process.

Last year, seniors made it through the process just fine, but some of them might have left high school with some gray hairs. They were stressed. They were overwhelmed, mostly because they wanted it so badly but didn’t know how to break it down into digestible pieces. Moving that process back six months helps us break it down into more digestible pieces.

Did the success of last year’s graduating class change or inform school culture in any way? Do you think it had an impact on the rising juniors or seniors at the school?

I absolutely think that it had a positive impact on our school culture. The things that we talked about this school being and the impact we wanted to have, we got to see that actually come to fruition last year.

One of the programs we did for the first time was Decision Day, and we made Decision Day a whole school event. We had a parade, and all the seniors wore hoodies with the school logo on the back and Decision Day on the chest. We made sure that every single one of them had a T-shirt representing the school they were choosing to go to, but they had the hoodie zipped up to cover their shirt. They walked across campus, with all the students from all the younger grades lined up on the edges of the quad with pom-poms in our school colors. When the seniors walked out, they got cheers from all the kids to celebrate them making this decision to pursue something after graduation.

In addition to seniors, every staff member got a hoodie as well and we encouraged them to wear their college T-shirts. It was a whole school event to celebrate the seniors and to celebrate a core part of our mission. People were coming up to us for days saying it was their favorite day of the whole school year.

This is why we’re doing this work, to recognize that we are setting them up to move into the next phase of their life and they’re going to be okay. Having the opportunity to see the result of all of our work was so positive for our culture.

What is next for the group that just graduated?

We tell our students and families we support kids through year 13. We have promised at least once-monthly communication, just to check in to remind them of general things that are probably going on during those times of the year at their college and to remind them that we are a resource if they have questions.

We are also going to have our first alumni day in December. We’re inviting our alums back for fellowship with one another, to visit their teachers and younger students. We’re hosting a college fair, where instead of representatives coming from colleges, we’re going to have our former students act as representatives of their colleges. So we’re trying to engage them in the process of paying it forward, being mentors and sources of information to younger students.

What is the most difficult or challenging part of your job?

There’s not enough time in the day. Especially as I’m getting older and my family is growing, I want to maintain a good work-life balance and this job isn’t always conducive to that. I wish I had more hours so I could be a mom and wife in my household and also be of service to these kids and their families in a way that I know is necessary. That’s definitely hard.

The other part that’s hard is that doing this work is expensive: having events, feeding people, renting vans, [buying] all the supplies it takes to make this programming effective, real, and robust. We do not have unlimited funds, and trying to decide where to put those resources, how to be conservative with them when we can – I wish that was one less thing that we had to worry about.

What is the most rewarding or exciting part of your job? What keeps you refreshed in the work you do?

For me, those hard-won victories are what motivates me most. We have kids who are bright, who are going to be successful in whatever space they’re in, and I love celebrating their successes. But I think the superpower of GLOW is that we are small and we have the opportunity to see kids as individuals, and we’ve had some kids, and we have some kids, who need that. They need to be seen. When we get those kids able to articulate their goals and take strides toward reaching those goals, that’s the stuff that feels like a win.

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Categories: Features, Women to Watch