10/13/2013 04:38 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Educate All Girls, Especially in Our Own Cities

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly again observed the International Day of the Girl Child, the theme of which is "Innovating for Girls' Education." In choosing this theme, the U.N. cited:

"... Girls' education, especially at the secondary level, is a powerful transformative force for societies and girls themselves: it is the one consistent positive determinant of practically every desired development outcome..."

Women now run some of the world's largest companies, a record number of women were elected to the 113th Congress, and perhaps most importantly, women are playing a dominant role in providing for their families. The Pew Research Center recently reported a record 40 percent of all U.S. households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.

Prominent in this observation is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who the Taliban tried to assassinate as she rode on a school bus. Despite a point blank gunshot wound to her head, Malala survived, has made a truly miraculous recovery, and is now a highly visible advocate for the cause of equal educational opportunities for all.

Her story might make people in the United States think the problem of gender inequality in education is something that exists "over there" as opposed to on our shores. While it is true that the severity of the gap between how boys and girls are educated is much more so in other countries, and while we have not seen the violent extremes to which some go to keep girls uneducated, even here, there is work to be done.

The expanding role of women in all aspects of our society makes it critical that there be programs targeted at providing girls -- especially those from low-income families -- access to the best possible secondary and college education.

To that end, we established The Young Women's Leadership Network (TYWLN) -- a network of inner city public schools for girls in grades 6-12. We operate five schools in New York City, with eight affiliates around the country. These public schools provide a single-sex educational choice for predominantly low-income students, many of whom will be the first in their families to graduate high school and attend college.

We go where the girls need us most, such as East Harlem and the Bronx. Girls from the inner-city are increasingly called upon to be the strength and economic support of their families and communities, yet only 8 percent of low-income adults in the U.S. achieve a college degree. It is imperative that these girls are provided opportunities for first-rate educations, and we must do better. After all, education is still the great and perhaps only real equalizer in this country.

For example, a senior at our school in East Harlem, in fact, the daughter of our school's custodian -- an uneducated man from Sri Lanka -- was recently awarded a full scholarship to Brown University. Early admission, no less! One of her classmates is one of my children.

Our model of public schools may not be the only one that works. But it is one that does, and is worth replicating, especially in low-income communities, where some public schools have not been able to raise up girls to reach their maximum potential so they can assume the broader roles that society is increasingly thrusting upon them.

Our girls stand as examples of what can be achieved when programs exist to get girls into the right academic environment. Since 2001, we have helped close to 5,000 students enroll in college. Our alumni achieve four-year college degrees at more than triple the rate of their peers, but we are only getting started. We offer girls a path, a portal and a destination. The path is the same as for affluent girls: a first-rate education. The destination is also the same: an independent and successful life.

This is what Malala's struggle is all about. In fact, when Malala visited our students in East Harlem last month, she called upon them to use their individual and collective voices to support the education of all girls.

I echo Malala's call. It is essential that we redouble our efforts to provide opportunities to girls. They are the future of our communities and our countries. Indeed, it's been reported that when 10% more girls go to school, a country's GDP increases on average by 3 percent. That holds true for girls everywhere, whether they live in the Swat Valley of Pakistan or East Harlem, New York.

The stakes are high. If we fail to harness the talent of all members of the next generation, we will be doing civilization a great disservice. Perhaps the Egyptian poet Hafez Ibrahim said it best: "When you educate a woman, you create a nation."

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