Ivy Prep in Gwinnett graduates first class

They are a small high school class, numbering just 10.

And, yet, for Nina Gilbert, the graduation of the class of 2015 represents a pivotal moment in her life.

For one thing, Gilbert's daughter Brittany, the inspiration behind Ivy Preparatory Academy, Georgia's first single-gender public charter school for girls, is among the academy's inaugural class of graduates.

Also, between the 10 of them, the grads have received more than $170,000 in scholarships to the likes of Hampton University, Agnes Scott, Georgia State University and Savannah College of Art and Design.

“The class is small, but mighty,” Gilbert said just days before Saturday’s commencement at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville.

Gilbert was never one of those parents who just sat back and let teachers decide the fate of her kids. She was a strong advocate for her two sons, and for Brittany, who struggled through elementary school.

Gilbert was worried that the large middle school in her neighborhood might not be the best option for her daughter.

As a special education teacher, she had worked with families that had some of the same concerns.

“Some parents were worried about low minority graduation rates in their zoned high schools,” Gilbert said. “Others believed that there were unfair disciplinary processes that targeted children of color, and others felt that their schools lacked structure and order. As a parent, I shared those same fears, and as an educator, I knew that we could make schools work better for all students.”

And so, after nearly a decade with the Gwinnett County school system, Gilbert resigned in 2005 and took Brittany with her. She launched a nonprofit education advocacy group, and friends and colleagues began to ask her to home-school their children.

“There were so many requests that I knew if I home-schooled every student I had a request for, I’d have my own school,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert began to research opening a charter school. A year later, in 2006, she was accepted into a national fellowship called Building Excellent Schools.

She spent the next year in Boston, away from her husband and children, going through rigorous leadership training, visiting high performing urban public schools, and writing a 300-page application and blueprint for a girls school in Gwinnett.

Her mission: provide a structured, supportive setting in which middle and high school girls could prepare to enter and succeed at the college or university of their choice.

On Aug. 8, 2008, she opened Ivy Prep in Norcross to 150 students from nine different metro Atlanta school districts.

Naming the school Ivy, after Gilbert’s favorite plant, was symbolic.

“I’d always been fascinated by its ability to cover a lot of ground despite external conditions,” Gilbert said. “I wanted our scholars to possess that same resilient nature.”

Gwinnett County Public Schools had rejected her idea for the charter, but she persevered, appealing her case to the state Board of Education. In 2008, she won approval to open Ivy Prep, but a year later Gilbert found herself in a bigger fight with her former employer over funding. County school officials filed suit against the state and Ivy Prep, challenging its receipt of local dollars.

The Gwinnett system then offered Gilbert a one-year charter and half of its planned funding.

Gilbert was left with one choice: dismantle the high school.

“But we refused to give up,” she said. “We knew that our girls deserved an excellent high school, and if we couldn’t offer that, then we would help them find great schools to attend.”

Gilbert and her team held a high school placement fair. Some Ivy students received scholarships to private high schools. Some headed to boarding school. The majority went back to their neighborhood schools.

“It was bittersweet,” Gilbert said. “It had been my vision for these girls to graduate from Ivy, but we were excited that they were well prepared to succeed in other great high schools.”

Still, Ivy parents were disappointed and angry.

One of them, Veda Bills, reminded Gilbert of her promise to get the girls prepared for college.

“We’ve been here since sixth grade, we’ve fought for the school, and we are not leaving,” she said.

Gilbert and her team got busy again, looking for a way to serve students who did not have good public high school options. They researched models, visited schools in other states, and adjusted their program to accommodate fewer students.

Gilbert now spends her time advocating for educational reforms and strengthening the policies and practices that will increase college access and attendance for historically underserved students. She grew her organization into a small network of single-gender charter schools. Two other schools serve boys and girls in East Atlanta.

Of the 50 students who remained at Ivy, 10 graduated Saturday.

“I am so proud of these scholars,” Gilbert said. “They demanded this option and aggressively fought for it. They’ve taught us all a lot about perseverance.”