“I was the only black kid in my class until the 4th grade,” Nikki Bowen tells PEOPLE. “So I learned really quickly what it meant to be different and what it meant to be poor and black.”
Bowen grew up in a cramped one-bedroom apartment she shared with her mom and little sister in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Bowen’s mom knew the neighborhood school couldn’t offer the quality education she wanted for her girls, so she sent them to a public school on the other side of Brooklyn.
Every morning, Bowen and her sister would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to take an hour-long bus ride to Brooklyn’s affluent Mill Basin neighborhood. At the time, it was hard for the girls to understand why they couldn’t join their friends at the school in their area.
“I would fight my mom every morning because we had to wake up so much earlier to catch the yellow school bus and our friends would make fun of us,” Bowen, 30, recalls.
If the bus wasn’t running, Bowen’s mom, a social worker who worked at a halfway house on weekends to make ends meet, would pay for a van service to drive her daughters to school.
“She sacrificed so much to make sure I had every opportunity,” Bowen says.
Bowen took those opportunities and ran with them. Her academic success led to admission to a gifted and talented middle school, and then scholarships to a Connecticut boarding school and Princeton University.
“Going to all of these schools made me realize how unfair it is that our country has really low expectations for kids who come from low-income communities,” she says.
After graduating from Princeton in 2008, Bowen decided to tackle this problem head-on by becoming a teacher through Teach for America. Today, she serves as principal of Excellence Girls, a public K-8 school in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood run by Uncommon Schools where 98 percent of the students are either African American or Hispanic and 78 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The school’s curriculum is focused on fierce females – women of color who have faced adversity and overcome enormous challenges – and it has been a tremendous success with students. In 2016, the school became the first-ever all-girls school to be awarded the National Blue Ribbon Award by the Department of Education.
The award “recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups,” according to the DoE website.
“It means the world to me,” Bowen, 30, says. “When we think about the field of education it’s rare that people teachers and schools get recognized for all the awesome work that’s happening day to day.”
Excellence Girls aims to educate a new generation of female leaders by instilling confidence and providing role models who students can relate to.
“Through talking about fierce women who had struggles in this life and who had people doubt what they could do, seeing them triumph really reaches our girls,” Bowen says. “It helps them know there is a path for them and there is a way that they’re going to make their mark on the world.”
“Our girls respond to our fierce females,” Bowen says. “They love them, they look up to them and they try to embody their qualities.”
The parents of Excellence Girls have noticed the curriculum’s impact on their daughters’ confidence levels. Precious Overton-Adkins says the change in her daughter and step-daughter, both 6 and in the first grade at Excellence Girls, has been remarkable.
“My stepdaughter has become more outspoken and my daughter is very eager to come home and show us what she learned in school,” Overton-Adkins, 36, tells PEOPLE. “They have become very confident in what they do and if they get something wrong they don’t give up they want to try again.”
For Overton-Adkins’ daughters, the most compelling “fierce female” is the one they get to interact with every day.
“The girls look at Ms. Bowen and see a young African American female who is making a difference,” she says. “They see her and say, ‘Well if this is what Ms. Bowen is doing I know if I want to be a teacher or a principal or the president I can do it too!’ “