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.
"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.
"This environment frees up boys from typecasting and stereotyping of what it means to be male," says Rick Melvoin, head of Belmont Hill School. This allows them, he explains, to focus their energies more on academics and relationships with teachers, and to develop themselves in ways they might not in a coed setting.
For instance, Mr. Melvoin says, a boy at Belmont Hill isn't considered any less masculine if he prefers singing in the glee club or performing in the school play over athletics.
Greg O'Connell, a Belmont Hill senior, would agree. "I am doing acting now," he says. "I might think twice about that if I were in a coed school."
As his friend Dan Neczypor puts it: "This place encourages risk."
That's not to say that there isn't some name-calling that goes on at boys' schools if a student acts in a way that's considered girlish. "If we hear one boy telling another boy that he runs or throws like a girl, we'll stop him in his tracks," says Debbie Callahan, dean of the faculty at Belmont Hill School. "By junior year, they know better."
At Roxbury Latin, art teacher Brian Buckley feels he's giving boys a gift by helping them to realize they can create a pleasing work on canvas, in clay, or with pen and ink. "At the coed school where I used to teach, girls took the lead in art," he says. "But here, boys are not intimidated. Many top athletes excel in art at Roxbury Latin."
Roxbury Latin science teacher Kate Chappell works hard at helping boys to express themselves. "I disagree with the idea that boys are innately stoic," she says. "From the moment students arrive, all of us here try to help them feel so comfortable, safe, and loved that they open up. Within two months, we've gotten to them."
It's a luxury of a boys' school that faculty and staff can address boys' emotional needs, says Michael Obel-Omia, English teacher and admissions director at Roxbury Latin. "Boys are hurting these days," he says. "As a teacher, you have to convey to boys that you love them. Then they will perform well. Boys don't learn subjects, they learn teachers."
One of the most important qualities a teacher can bring to a boys' school is patience, says Kerry Brennan, headmaster of Collegiate School in New York, who will soon take the reins at Roxbury Latin.
"In a boys' school," he says, "boys are given time to grow up at their own pace, whereas in a coed setting, girls' earlier and more advanced clocks define everything."
Of course, not everyone is a fan of boys' schools. Some feel the environment is unnatural and that it will foster boys who are socially awkward with girls. Belmont Hill's Dean Callahan admits she is "a little nervous" about how her students will adjust to sharing classes with girls in college.
But most boys interviewed shrugged off the notion that the adjustment will be tough. Others laugh and say that the biggest myth of a boys' school is that it's a kind of "monastery." Both Roxbury Latin and Belmont Hill students see girls from nearby independent girls' schools at dances and other jointly held events. And they usually produce plays together, which some say - with a wink - gives them that extra incentive to try out for a show.
Dr. Michael Thompson, a child and family therapist, author, and staff psychologist at Belmont Hill, is thrilled that boys' schools are being rediscovered.
"I am not ready to say they are the panacea and that we should return to entirely single-sex schools," he says. "But in a boys' school, learning is a male thing, and there's a danger in coed schools that learning will be only a girl thing. Boys' schools are hard-working places, without being too earnest. There's a lot of humor and ribbing, and nobody is impressed by a macho attitude."