FARMINGTON, CONN. — At Miss Porter's School, a 154-year-old prep school here, all the academic and athletic stars are girls, as are all the leads in the school plays and the most talented artists and musicians.
As Caitlin Doyle, a freshman from East Hampton, N.Y., says, "Here, we run the show."
Caitlin is a bubbly teen with a passion for learning and a dream of becoming a movie producer. She knows an all-girls school was right for her. "I came from a school system where kids don't even care about learning," she says. "Here, everyone's bright and intelligent and they want to learn."
Single-sex prep schools - particularly those for girls - are basking in a renaissance. Applications and enrollments are up. Advocates say more families are deciding that single-sex education is not a vestige of Victorianism but a valuable option with far-reaching social and academic advantages.
Half a dozen single-sex schools have opened since 1995, and segregated classrooms in public schools, while legally questionable, are being trumpeted as a solution to high school girls lagging behind boys in math and science. In 1991 there were an estimated 29,000 students in all-girls schools in the United States; today, there are close to 36,000.
These increases are occurring amid the rise in coed schools in recent decades. In the mid-1960s, only about 38 percent of private schools were coed, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. Today, 83 percent are coed. Of the remaining 17 percent, 9 percent are girls' schools and 8 percent are just for boys. (Figures do not include parochial schools.)
Part of the mission of administrators of single-sex schools is to graduate girls with the self-esteem to "make [the playing] field level later on," says M. Burch Tracy Ford, who heads Miss Porter's School.
"Schools are an extension of the larger culture, and when boys and girls come together life tends to be on the boys' terms," Ms. Ford says. "Girls are socialized to be accommodating, and in a coed setting girls tend to defer to the boys and to accommodate rather than really focus on their development."
A 1992 report from the American Association of University Women, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," makes the case that girls are inadvertently neglected in coed classes. "This report presents the truth behind a myth: that girls and boys receive an equal education," it begins.
The report claims teachers of both genders pay more attention to boys - in part because unruly boys demand it. Imani Brown, a freshman at Miss Porter's from San Jose, Calif., felt that was so in classrooms she used to sit in. "[Before], classes seemed to go slower because the boys seemed to be very disruptive and rowdy. I didn't learn as much because the teachers were always concentrating on them and trying to get them to pay attention, and so a lot of the girls got kind of ignored," Imani says.
Caitlin's father, Sean Doyle, doesn't need a study to know his daughter made the right choice "She has blossomed in so many directions," he says.
Supporters of single-sex schools point out that boys as well as girls benefit without the distractions of the opposite sex. Students say they are better able to concentrate on learning free of the posturing and primping that goes on in coed schools. "It's easier because I don't have to worry about how I look in the morning. I can just go to class and I don't have to put on makeup or worry if my hair's messy," Imani says.
Ross Johnson from Mendham, N.J., a senior at the all-boys Salisbury School in Salisbury, Conn., says he is more apt to ask questions in class because he doesn't have to worry what girls will think of him.
"The social pressure is kind of taken off here," Ross says.
Educators seem to agree that there is more evidence supporting the benefits of girls' schools than those for boys, but advocates for boys' schools are nevertheless convinced that they are needed, too.
Richard Hawley is the headmaster of University School in Cleveland and president of a three-year-old boys' schools coalition.
"We have never been more persuaded than now," he says of his belief in single-sex schools. "There is absolutely no research to support academic or social reasons for coeducation."