Merits, Demerits Of Single-Sex Ed Raised in Harlem
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL?
An all-girls school? Leslie Cortez says her friends in Harlem thought the idea sounded crazy. She politely set them straight.Skip to next paragraph
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"Girls and boys may need time apart," the tall seventh-grader says matter-of-factly. "Boys are noisier; they're more into girls and fashion. At my age, I need to focus on my studies."
This week, Leslie and some 40 other girls will don navy blazers and checked skirts and step into a school of their own. The Young Women's Leadership School in east Harlem, the first all-girls public school to open in the United States this century, begins classes Sept. 4 - despite a barrage of criticism and a civil rights lawsuit.
The school in Harlem is part of a scattered but decided comeback for single-sex education that extends from the potato fields of Maine to the palm-lined streets of California. While the Harlem school is one of only three public schools for girls in the nation, educators note that enrollment at private girls schools has jumped 8 percent since 1991.
Efforts have been launched, too, to set up public schools for inner-city boys in Detroit, Milwaukee, and New York. But they have been halted by lawsuits on grounds of gender discrimination.
Driving the movement toward single-sex schools - or even single-sex classrooms at coeducational schools - are a handful of studies that indicate boys and girls have different learning needs and receive unequal treatment from teachers. The impetus for this approach to education received a boost in recent years, especially after a widely publicized study in 1992 reported that bias against girls persists in America's elementary and secondary schools.
Creating same-gender schools like the one in Harlem is a cheap and easy way to provide more options for students, says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States, an independent think tank in Denver. "People are saying, 'If it works, let's do it.' "
"Of course, there's not a lot of data on how it works when it is done," she adds. "But hey, it's not costly and it's not divisive - if it's handled properly."
Research on public single-sex programs is scant at best, but private schools offer a window on their possible effectiveness. In one recent study, African-American and Hispanic students in private single-sex schools scored nearly a year ahead of their peers in public co-ed schools. The finding applies to students at all-girl and all-boy schools.
But these results don't necessarily mean that all schools should switch to a single-sex format. In fact, such schools may be more effective when they are atypical, says Cornelius Riordan, a professor who conducted the study for Providence College in Rhode Island. "The more that these schools remain rare and special, the more effective they will be" for that minority of students who select them, he concluded in the study.
For girls, in particular, same-gender schools may prove to be valuable. Studies show the traditional public-school system underserves girls, catering to the learning style, the temperaments, and even the sports metaphors of boys. Girls receive less attention than boys in a co-ed setting, and their test scores steadily decline in higher math and science classes.
"In general, girls are competitive, but they are collaborative," says Whitney Ransome, director of the 80-member National Coalition of Girls Schools in Concord, Mass. "They think about how to solve a problem together rather than try to do it ahead of the other guy."