The Class of 2016 at Young Women's Leadership Academy celebrated history Sunday.
The 32 students were the first-ever to graduate from the all-girls school in the Fort Worth ISD.
"Being the very first class means that we've had the chance to kind of pave the way," class president Margie Ruffin said.
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"Honestly, it's a feeling that you can't even describe, like you just feel proud of yourself," said Adriana Rodriguez. "You're trying to take it in and it's just so exciting. Everything is so exciting at this point."
YWLA opened in August 2010 with sixth and seventh graders. All committed to college and focused on leadership and wellness. Rodriguez was one of those seventh graders and is now a member of the inaugural graduating class.
"The best thing to happen at this school was being elected vice president for student council," she said. "When I first started this school, I wasn't really outgoing. And then I just got a little bit out of my comfort zone. I started attending student council and I started feeling that I actually had a voice and being a leader."
Rodriguez will take that leadership experience as she transitions to Stephen F. Austin University in the fall.
"College was always in the plan. I'm going to be a first-gen student, so I'm very excited about that as well," she said. "It was always in the plan and definitely our college advisor she made it happen for all of us."
All 32 girls have plans after high school. Thirty one will head to college and one will head to the U.S. Air Force.
"The numbers behind the class are awesome," said Kendra Strange, the college-bound advisor. "They have over $6 million in scholarships and I'm still counting. They've applied to almost 300 colleges."
Strange starts preparing the girls for college as soon as the sixth-grade year. Through middle school and high school, she guides them in selecting a college, applying and finding financial aid. She also helps their parents understand the expectations and manages fears about sending their daughters away to college.
Of the more than 300 sixth through 12th graders, more than 60 percent are from economically-disadvantaged homes. Most girls will need financial help. Most will be first-generation college students.
"I'm going to Southern Methodist University," said Kennedy Woodard. "I'm on mostly scholarship. Right now, my cost of attendance is $6,000. It started out at $69,000."
"I think it just really reinforces the fact that college is important and that it can be done. You just need the right tools," said Strange. "We want to set that expectation, to show them that they can. So, the class of 2016 has just done an amazing job really showcasing that its possible."
And, they've done it together. Girls find a sisterhood at YWLA that encourages and empowers.
"I am the senior class president, and I was voted president because I ran unopposed because my sisters felt like the position was made for me," said Ruffin. " And that is the greatest thing, the greatest feeling anybody could ever have is to have a support system filled with people that know that you can do the things that they want you to do."
Ruffin already knows where the future will take her. "In the year 2020, I'll be graduating from the illustrious Spelman College," she proudly announced at Signing Day where all 32 girls publicly declared where they will go after high school.
"It was so empowering because I fought for it for such a long time to get to Spelman," she said. "I didn't think I would be able to go for a long time because of financial issues but eventually I just felt like the faith was there."
"Future? Getting my bachelors in mechanical engineering then getting a master's in business." said Woodard who credits the support at YWLA for a huge decision in her sophomore year. She skipped her junior year to graduate early, joining her sister Alexis to be among the first students to get a high school diploma from YWLA.
In the process, Kennedy also become the valedictorian.
"Just knowing that I could get out a year early and just be an example for the girls coming up to know like if you really wanna do something, you can really do it." said Woodard. "Just keep persevering and don't give up on whatever you wanna do."
"You know that's the amazing part of my job. I get to see them grow from 6th grade to high schoolers, and now most of them are 18. They're young women," said Strange. "Helping them to really stand on their own two feet, not just in college but in life.
YWLA is one of seven all-girls public schools in Texas under the umbrella of the Young Women's Preparatory Network. YWPN was founded in 2002 and provides funding to seven schools with about 4,200 students in sixth through 12th grades. Each school prepares girls for college and emphasizes a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, art and math.
The Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School in the Dallas ISD and the Young Women's Leadership Academy at Arnold in the Grand Prairie ISD are also part of YWPN.
Like YWLA in Fort Worth, each school has a college-bound advisor on campus, a critical part of success.
"Oh my goodness it just shows how well it works," said Strange. "I really hope people can see that these 32 young women have accomplished so much and know that this set up works perfectly for these students."
Young Women's Leadership Academy: Web | Facebook | Twitter
Young Women's Prepatory Network: youngwomensprep.org
Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School: www.dallasisd.org/rangel
YWLA at Arnold: www.gpisd.org/Page/3826