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Alexandria, Va--Coeducation, says the Rev. Edwin M. Ward, headmaster of the St. Stephen's Episcopal School for Boys here, will better prepare students for "life in a coed world."

But in the process of entering that world, his 44-year-old school is undergoing a transformation that is changing its philosophy, its traditions, and its relationship with a "sister" school determined to remain single-sex.

Next fall, when the first girls enter St. Stephen's elementary grades, the "for Boys" will be dropped from the school's name.

It is a big step, one that has been studied and twice deferred over the last seven years. But to the headmaster--and most of the alumni--now is the time.

"You just can't ignore the fact that society has judged coeducation to be appropriate," Mr. Ward says.

St. Stephen's is joining a number of private schools nationwide that have become coeducational in the 1980's, years after most other single-sex schools discovered the economic and social advantages of admitting members of the opposite sex.

Some educators, in fact, are referring to the resurgence of school conversions as a "second wave" of coeducation.

"The first wave of schools going coed was between 1969 and 1975," notes Adele Q. Ervin, director of external affairs for the National Association of Independent Schools. The second wave began around 1985, she says, and has picked up speed recently, with The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey admitting 200 girls last fall and trustees of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts voting last week to begin accepting girls in 1989. (See story on page 17.)

"We're 10 years behind the times," says John T. Hazel Jr., a lawyer and real-estate developer who serves as chairman of the St. Stephen's Board of Governors. "It's completely anachronistic to operate a boys' school."

Led By Boys' Schools

The recent move to coeducation has been led primarily by boys' schools, out of a belief that boys develop better in a coed environment. Girls' schools have been more reluctant to go coed for fear that boys will dominate classroom discussions and stifle girls' independence.

"I don't see boys' schools in as good a market position as girls' schools, because so many people feel that it's much better for boys to have coeducation," says Sanford Roeser, a private-school consultant and former executive director of the Secondary School Admissions Test Board.

Bruce McClellan, who was headmaster of The Lawrenceville School for 27 years before retiring two years ago, says that "the only reason for single-sex education in history was the fact that boys were sent to school because they were the wage-earners."

"If schools want to be in the mainstream of American society," he says, "they have to be coeducational."

To Ms. Ervin of the nais, "The reasons for going coed are largely economic. Schools see themselves as less competitive if they are single-sex."

25-Year Pattern

A declining number of secondary-school-age young people, increasing competition with the public schools, the changing role of women in the workforce, and the diminishing number of parents who have gone to single-sex schools are all factors forcing school administrators to consider whether they will be able to draw on a large enough pool of applicants in the future.

The 870-member roster of the n.a.i.s., which represents half of the independent schools in the United States, reflects the trend. Since 1980, 17 nais schools have become coeducational. Last year, there were 205 single-sex schools in the association, 34 percent fewer than in 1962.

Administrators at Deerfield and Lawrenceville, the most recent of the big-name boarding schools to go coed, say that changing social norms, rather than a need to boost enrollment, were behind their decisions.

"We weren't groping for students," says James J. Zimmerman, director of public relations at Lawrenceville. "We were looking 15 years down the road at who would be coming to Lawrenceville. Would we be perceived as a relic?"

At both schools, administrators say some students who would normally have enrolled were choosing coed institutions instead, a situation that was seen as a potential threat to their position among the top private schools in the country. "There aren't very many single-sex schools left," Mr. Zimmerman notes.

'Inevitable' Decision

At St. Stephen's, a more immediate threat forced the decision to go coed: a sudden drop in enrollment. For the past few years, enrollment had held steady at about 550 students, but last fall 30 fewer students enrolled, a 5 percent drop.

"We thought that sometime before the end of the century we would be coed anyway, but we were avoiding the fundamental action we needed to take to build up the school," explains Mr. Hazel, the board chairman.

Public schools in the surrounding suburban Washington counties of Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, as well as coeducational private schools in the area, were claiming many of those students, says Mr. Hazel.

"We are competing with some of the best-financed and most acclaimed schools in the country," he says. "Nothing can be taken for granted."

The board had considered coeducation at least twice since 1980, but each time had put off a decision. Last October, it made the decision that Mr. Hazel calls "inevitable."

Next fall, the school, which now begins with the 3rd grade, will add kindergarten through 2nd grade, a move many private schools are taking due to the growing numbers of younger children. Girls will be admitted in grades K-3 then, and will join the 4th- and 5th-grade classes in 1989-90.

If everything goes as planned, the 6th through 8th grades will be coeducational in 1990-91, with the 9th through 12th to follow in 1991-92. The school has begun a $10-million building program to renovate its two campuses, located in a residential area of Alexandria.

The Trustees of the Church Schools of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which governs St. Stephen's, have approved coeducation up to the 5th grade and are studying whether to allow the school to extend coeducation to the upper grades.

A complicating factor in the decision may be the competition for students between St. Stephen's and its sister school, St. Agnes.

Sibling Rivalry

Located only 2 miles from St. Stephen's, the older girls' school, founded in 1924, has had a long relationship with its all-male counterpart.

The schools hold dances together and attend each other's athletic events. St. Agnes students act as St. Stephen's cheerleaders. And for years, the boys attending St. Agnes's coeducational grades K-2 went on to St. Stephen's in the 3rd grade.

But now officials at St. Agnes say they are taking no part in decisions being made at their brother institution.

The sibling relationship, it would seem, is no longer harmonious.

As soon as St. Stephen's announced its plans, the St. Agnes board decided to admit boys through the 3rd grade, and said it would consider expanding coeducation to the 5th grade.

The school remains committed, however, to single-sex education in the upper grades, according to its headmistress, Joan G.O. Holden. "We are doing a fine job of educating girls," she says.

Mr. Hazel calls St. Agnes's K-2 admission of boys "a half-baked, fuzzy arrangement," and says that in recent years only six or eight of the St. Agnes boys a year have continued at St. Stephen's after the 2nd grade.

About five years ago, he says, St. Stephen's "wanted to interest St. Agnes in some sort of joint approach," but the girls' school declined to participate. Then, St. Stephen's officials began to consider going coed.

"There's a good deal of opposition from St. Agnes, putting it mildly," Mr. Hazel notes. "We would have [gone coed] several years ago if not for the unfriendliness of St. Agnes."

Says Ms. Holden: "Every school has to do what's best for them. I don't want to comment on St. Stephen's."

Testing Alumni Loyalty

The boys' school's move to a "coed world" is also testing the loyalty of some alumni, who find themselves torn between supporting the school's tradition and ensuring its survival.

For Clarence N. Burke, St. Stephen's class of 1974, the switch to coeducation and the ensuing rivalry with St. Agnes is almost a family dispute. His grandmother helped found St. Agnes, and his family has maintained ties to both schools.

The president of an insurance firm begun by his grandfather, Mr. Burke says he supports St. Stephen's decision but wishes the two schools could have more cooperation.

"St. Agnes is saying single-sex education can work, but St. Stephen's is saying it can't anymore," Mr. Burke says. "There's a lot of hard feelings between the two schools, between the boards. I hope St. Stephen's is doing the right thing."

According to an alumni poll the school conducted in 1980, the switch to coeducation is the "right thing." When it asked the alumni to suggest ways to improve the school, the leading suggestion was to admit girls.

But, perhaps surprisingly, school administrators say they have found that alumni who graduated after 1980 tend to oppose the move.

Last month, Mr. Ward polled his senior theology class and found a mix of opinions, leaning toward coeducation: 29 for, 18 opposed, and 7 neutral.

"The purpose of going to school is to get a good education, and it doesn't matter if it's coed," says John Feden, 17, a senior, echoing the sentiments of many here.

"Life is coed," he says, "and business is coed, too."

But Rick Burton, a junior, disagrees. "The atmosphere is going to change," he complains. "Now, guys can talk about things without worrying about girls hearing them. But if we're coed, they might keep stuff to themselves."

For John Griffin, a sophomore who will have graduated long before any girls enter the upper school, the idea of coeducation is still difficult to imagine.

"Everything is going to change," he says. "St. Stephen's won't be anything like it is now."

'It's the Demographics'

But administrators point out that forces beyond the control of the board are already changing St. Stephen's.

Most of its current students live further away from the school than their predecessors did. Only 17 percent of Alexandria residents have school-age children, says Mr. Ward, and the rising cost of housing is driving more and more families further into the surrounding counties.

Last year, the school bought three Dodge Ram vans to help transport students from the outlying areas.

Fred Berg, a Spanish teacher, drives 11 students to a pick-up point near his home in West Springfield, Va., about 12 miles and 45 minutes from the school. Once there, the students are met by parents, some of whom drive up to 10 miles to the pick-up point.

"It's the demographics," says the 25-year classroom veteran. "We've got to cover more ground. We've got a lot of competition around here and it behooves us to afford transportation to get some of these students."

Even when the school becomes coed, the van runs will have to continue running, says Mr. Berg. "The kids would go to some other school if we didn't do this."

Teachers Supportive

Like most of the St. Stephen's faculty, Mr. Berg, a graduate of The Lawrenceville School, favors the move toward coeducation. The boys' lives will be more well-rounded, he says, and girls will raise the level of achievement in class.

"It might wake some of those boys up, because they don't want to be second-class to girls," he maintains.

But like a number of his colleagues, Mr. Berg has never taught girls. "I'm not worried," he says. "If anything, the girls will pick it up quicker."

Other teachers express similar confidence. "I have a wife and a daughter, so I'm not unacquainted with the female sex," says William VanSwearingen, a French and Spanish teacher who also says he has never taught a coed class.

Mary Jean Lynch, an art teacher, is more concerned, she says, that teachers not lower their standards for girls.

Coed Bookshelves

"If a boy flunks a test, teachers tend to say, 'You didn't prepare enough,' but if a girl flunks, teachers say, 'Well, math just isn't your subject,"' Ms. Lynch says.

"I hope we keep the same expectations for girls as for boys."

For James D. Osuna, head of the upper school, the subtle complexities of the switch to coeducation have been mirrored in faculty-meeting discussions--everything from providing enough bathrooms, locker rooms, and playing fields for girls, to whether the library's bookshelves are too male-oriented.

"For example," he says, "a book like Catcher in the Rye is geared toward boys. We'll need to get more female-oriented books."

"You've got to think of everthing."

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Osuna found himself explaining coeducation to students in a hallway.

"Will there be a dress code for girls?" wondered sophomore Erik English.

"That's another thing we've got to do," Mr. Osuna said. "Let me tell you, it's a lot harder to have a dress code for girls than for boys."

"Why don't you just get rid of the dress code, Mr. Osuna?" suggested John Griffin.

Some things, Mr. Osuna assured him, do not change. The St. Stephen's boys' coat and tie are likely to remain de rigueur.

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