The case for single-sex schools

Rosemary Salomone says families of all incomes should at least have the option of one-sex schools

The 1990s was a crossroads decade for single-sex education. Female cadets marched their way into two previously all-male public colleges - the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel in South Carolina. At the same time, urban school districts from Detroit to New York tried to provide the option of a single-sex environment.

Rosemary Salomone didn't know she was soon to become an expert on the subject. The professor at St. John's University School of Law in New York was called upon for legal advice by the founder of the Young Women's Leadership School in Harlem. The public school, which emphasizes math and science, opened in 1996 with 50 seventh-grade girls. Surviving the threat of lawsuits, it gradually expanded through 12th grade and inspired the founding of an all-girls charter school in Chicago.

Dr. Salomone's research took her far beyond Harlem - through Supreme Court cases, ideological debates, and the intricacies of Title IX, the law that bans sex discrimination in federally funded education. It took her to high schools in Philadelphia and Baltimore that had retained their long-standing all-girl status as the country went coed.

In her new book, "Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Education" (Yale University Press), she argues that there is a place for single-sex education in the public realm. In 2002, Congress agreed, adding a provision to the No Child Left Behind law permitting single-sex programs. Clearer guidance on what districts need to do to make sure such programs comply with Title IX is due this summer.

As she awaited the guidelines, Salomone spoke with the Monitor over the phone from her home in Rye, N.Y. Excerpts follow.

How did your experience in a single-sex school influence your views?

Every teacher was a woman - many of them were nuns. There wasn't the traditional gender polarization that often happens in coed schools. Any girl could be president of the student government or editor in chief of the newspaper. We had a winning basketball team. And you went to school not worried about how you looked. It gave you the sense of limitless possibilities.

When I was visiting the all-girls schools, girls would say: "Yes, we believe that the single-sex aspect of this school is what's important. We're not distracted by boys. We can focus on the academics. We're all like family here; we feel like sisters."

What underlay the opposition to single-sex schools in the 1990s?

There [was] misunderstanding about single-sex schools, a lot of it being a holdover of the finishing-school [image].

Some of the negative feelings were coming from the historical exclusion of women from all-male schools. But with [the students at] these schools [I visited], it was a matter of trying to give them the skills and attitudes and knowledge [that would] lift them up - not just academically, but socially.

I found a very clear division within the ranks of women who would consider themselves feminists. Very often, women supporting these schools had attended a single-sex college or high school. [Opponents] had never stepped into a single-sex school. They seemed to be stymied in a certain vision of gender equality based purely on equal treatment and equal access and assimilation, which was very much a part of the women's movement in the 1970s.

Civil rights groups, particularly the ACLU and the National Organization for Women, have opposed single-sex schools. [Some opponents draw] on the Supreme Court decision in 1954 on Brown v. Board of Education. The court said separate is inherently unequal, that it really imposes a badge of inferiority on black children to be told that they cannot attend schools with white children. So the argument [by some] is, well, separate is inherently unequal not only with regard to race, but with any relevant criteria, including sex.

You can't compare these schools to what was going on in the South under forced segregation. Students are volunteering to attend single-sex schools.

How were historical single-sex schools different from the schools you visited recently?

Until the early 1970s in New York City, there was stunning sex segregation in vocational schools. The programs in the girls' schools were sewing and hairdressing, secretarial services, nursing - very traditional women's jobs. The boys' schools focused on automotive skills and aviation, jobs that were more lucrative. As a result of Title IX, those programs became illegal. The schools became coed or were redesigned.

The only single-sex schools that have continued are Philadelphia High School for Girls and Western High School in Baltimore. [These schools will permit boys, but none have asked to attend.]

Why are some educators so eager to set up single-sex options?

We're going on four decades of compensatory programs for at-risk students, particularly in the inner city. Even after allocating significant dollars into changing their academic and social circumstances, those programs have failed to stem this downward spiral.

We have scores of books and articles on how disadvantaged boys just don't identify with academic achievement. They gain their self-esteem from sports or from social popularity. And even disadvantaged minority girls too often seek validation in early motherhood.

The whole school-choice [movement] has created certain healthy expectations in poor parents, that they too have the right to choose the education for their children.

When you talk to the parents of children in these single-sex [public] schools, they feel certain that this is a right decision for their children.

Equal doesn't necessarily mean the same kinds of services have to be provided. Sometimes ... to achieve equal educational opportunity, we have to provide different kinds of opportunity to students.

What about the recent attention to boys falling behind girls academically?

[Some] see the issue as boys [being] disadvantaged or girls [being] disadvantaged. When you look at the data, you'll see that boys and girls are constrained in different ways. Perhaps many girls can benefit from an all-girls school in the middle years. Perhaps some boys can benefit in Kindergarten and grades 1 and 2.

I was so taken by a roomful of middle-school boys playing violin. You'd be hard pressed to see that in a coed school. Boys [in single-sex schools] have opportunities to take a leadership position in what would be considered female activities.

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