Separating the sexes: a new direction for public education?

Bush administration's plan coincides with rising popularity of such schools.

As a member of the districtwide student council her sophomore year, Monique Harrington, who is now a junior at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, stood before 300 classmates and sailed through the speech that she had prepared.

Remembering that day, she says, "It was nothing. These are my people. I can talk to them." She didn't stumble later that summer either, when she addressed a room packed with professors.

"There are a number of miracle stories to tell," says Leonard Sax, a psychologist and the director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). And these stories, of confident young women like Monique, are being offered by advocates as a reason to continue expanding single-sex education into public schools and classrooms.

First there was Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the decision that outlawed racial segregation in America's public schools. Then came Title IX in 1972 - the landmark law that declared discrimination by sex illegal in schools that receive federal money. Both decisions affirmed a steady march toward integrated public schools in the United States.

In the past decade, however, single-sex schools have surged in popularity. Today, there are 25 same-sex public schools in the nation, almost all formed after 1996, according to NASSPE. Another 72 schools offer single-sex classes. And a dozen more are slated to open in the fall. Some experts predict this trend will only continue, giving 2005 the potential to become a banner year for same-sex education.

Because of success stories like that of Girls High, and the desire to present parents with more education options for their children, in 2001 the Bush administration set out to make it easier to form such schools.

This March, the US Department of Education unveiled a proposal to change Title IX. Whereas in the past, only limited subjects like gym or sex education could be held in single-sex classrooms, under the new regulations, a school may create an all-girls physics class, for example, as long as the same caliber of textbooks and equipment is available to boys in a coeducational setting.

This also holds true for single-sex schools. To establish a boys' school, a district must show only that equal offerings are available at a nearby coed school. A parallel girls' school will no longer be required.

Reactions to the proposal have been mixed. Those opposed to tinkering with Title IX point out that what little research there is on single-sex public schools has been inconclusive, while civil rights groups fear the new plan could reverse 30 years of gains in gender equality.

Established in 1848 atop a hill overlooking row houses, Girls High is the second-oldest single-sex public school in the country. Each year, more than 3,000 students apply for fewer than 350 spots.

About 60 percent of the girls are African-American. Half come from families below the national poverty line. Yet upon graduating, about 96 percent of Girls High students continue on to college - many to prestigious schools.

It's all part of a larger Girls High legacy. A history that "is so important to young people, particularly for young people whose family life might be a bit disjointed or unconventional," says Rosemary Salomone, author of "Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling" and a professor at St. John's University School of Law in New York.

Many girls here insist that without the consuming distraction of boys, they are free to focus on school, and to develop their relationships with one another. They feel less competitive, more like a family.

"You don't worry about your boyfriend - who he's talking to," says Monique. "You worry about that after school."

Girls High students are also conscious of the value of their education, and they embrace the expectations that accompany it. "It would be a waste of time if you didn't go to college after going to Girls High," explains sophomore Adikaira Martinez.

Studies have shown that teachers tend to call on boys more often than girls, and that girls, in turn, often fall silent in classrooms filled with eager boys. But at Girls High, there is no such intimidation, they say.

Dr. Sax, director of NASSPE, says that Monique and her classmates are more comfortable in a same-sex environment due to biological differences between boys and girls that should not be ignored.

Research indicates that girls learn best in a friendly environment, says Sax. At the Young Women's Leadership School in New York, an East Harlem public school founded in 1996 that last year sent 100 percent of its students to college, everyone - from the principal to the person who cleans the restroom - is on a first-name basis.

"Girls watch the teacher and then they do what the teacher does," he says.

Not so in a boys' setting, which Sax says requires a different approach altogether and works best when boys are addressed formally. Boys as young as the second grade thrive when a teacher demands: Mr. Jefferson, what's your answer? "If you teach them as men, they're more likely to behave as men," says Sax.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), believes that children may have distinct learning styles - one may learn by hearing, another by seeing, and a third by doing - but she takes exception at the notion that these differences break down strictly along gender lines. Gender is "not a monolith when it comes to learning style or ability," says Ms. Gandy.

She worries that without the collegial relationships boys and girls form in school, they will not develop into men and women who understand and respect one another.

The American Civil Liberties Union shares NOW's concern that the proposed changes to Title IX lack adequate safeguards and could lead down a "slippery slope" to sex discrimination.

Both groups argue that without better research on same-sex public education, Title IX should be left alone.

Even single-sex education advocates agree that the lack of conclusive research is a problem.

Ms. Salomone, the law professor, acknowledges that "We need some empirical support." But she adds that because these programs have been outside the legal bounds for 30 years, there has never been a field for conducting research. She says lower standards of evidence should be accepted, at least for the time being.

Cornelius Riordan, a professor of sociology at Providence College in Rhode Island, was recently commissioned by the Department of Education to examine research on single-sex education in both the public and private sectors in the US and other English-speaking countries, with a particular eye to how it may benefit at-risk students.

Studies that he conducted on Catholic schools in the '70s and '80s showed that African-American students made gains in same-sex schools. In particular, he says that the single-sex setting offers them a sense of power and control they may otherwise lack.

David Sadker, an education professor at American University in Washington, has found that single-sex education has positive effects on girls, as he documented in "Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls," the 1995 book he wrote with his wife.

But this does not make him a supporter of the Department of Education's proposal to change Title IX.

It is "a perverse anniversary of the Brown decision," Mr. Sadker says. "Here, 50 years after Brown, we're actually codifying segregation." He adds, "The problem is fixing the coed classroom, not escaping from it."

Students at Girls High don't suggest that single-sex education is the answer for everyone. But what she does know, says Monique, is that she's very glad Girls High exists for girls like her "who want to get a good education."

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