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Segregation or salvation?

By Jennifer WolcottStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 2004

Emil Pitkin took a lot of flak for his decision to switch from a coed school to one for boys. "You're going where?" his friends asked in disbelief.

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"Boys' schools are an unnatural environment for a young man," adults told him. "The world is full of girls, so you might as well get used to them now."

But Emil, who lives in Sharon, Mass., and is originally from St. Petersburg, had made up his mind. The scholarly eighth grader was headed to one of the most respected boys' schools in North America, The Roxbury Latin School, in Boston's West Roxbury, and nothing could stop him.

Now a junior, the remarkably self-assured Emil has no regrets. "Sometimes I think I might have had more fun with girls around," he says. "But then I remind myself that I'm in school to learn, first and foremost."

Of course, school and learning should be synonymous. But in recent years, for boys anyway, this hasn't always been the case. Whereas the gender gap favored boys not too long ago, girls now outshine boys in just about every academic arena.

Girls are earning better grades, scoring higher on their SATs, and taking home a majority of America's bachelor's degrees.

In their efforts to keep up, many boys are floundering. In recent years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has flagged boys' increasing disengagement from academics. And recent statistics show boys are more likely to repeat a grade, to require special ed, or to be diagnosed with either attention-deficit disorder or hyperactivity.

Some say this is the result of schools that cater to a feminine ideal - sitting still in tidy rows, for instance, listening quietly to a teacher's lecture, and taking immaculate notes. Many girls can ace these tasks, experts say, but boys will often struggle with them because their learning styles are different.

Boys learn best when they can move around, perform hands-on activities, and interact with teachers in a lighthearted, joking manner. "There's simply a tempo and a sequence to the way boys learn that is not better or worse but different," says Rick Hawley, head of the University School, the largest private boys' school in America.

It used to be that people thought single-sex schools were "good for girls and not for boys." Now that perception is changing. As the classroom, curriculum, and culture can be tailored to male needs, schools that are exclusively for boys are now being looked at more closely as a viable alternative and as a possible remedy for boys' much-publicized academic woes.

"I have never been more certain that boys' schools are the way to go given what boys are dealing with now," Mr. Hawley says.

Research shows that boys make academic gains when educated in the company of their own sex. A recent study in Australia, for example, looked at six years of test scores for 270,000 students and found that boys in single-sex schools scored, on average, 15 to 22 percentiles higher than peers in coeducational settings. And researchers at Cambridge University in England found that "using single-sex groups was a significant factor in establishing a school culture that would raise educational achievement."

In America, girls' schools have been studied more closely in past decades, so research on single-sex schools for boys is scant and mostly anecdotal.

On the campuses of Roxbury Latin and another prestigious independent school for boys, the Belmont Hill School in Belmont, Mass., students, teachers, and administrators recently shared their views on why a school for boys makes sense in today's world.

Less distraction, a comfort level that allows one to ask "stupid questions" in class without embarrassment, and an ability to joke around with teachers in ways one might not with girls present are advantages all parties touched on. But perhaps the advantage cited most often is a culture that allows boys to forget societal pressures to be macho. At boys' schools, advocates say, students learn that there are lots of ways to be a boy.