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Deerfield's Choice Was 'Educational and Practical'

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After years of debate over whether to admit girls, the 191-year-old Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass., has decided to become coeducational.

Trustees of the prestigious boarding school approved the change by a 20-to-2 vote on Jan. 30, making Deerfield the latest in a long line of formerly all-male private schools to open their doors to women.

The list now includes, in addition to Deerfield, such top-tier names as The Lawrenceville School of New Jersey, the Governor Dummer Academy and the Groton School in Massachusetts, the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut.

The Deerfield vote came after the board had reviewed a year-long study of coeducation by the school's faculty and board members. The board had rejected the admission of women twice in the 1970's, years when many other all-male schools were turning to coeducation.

"The issues were both educational and practical," said Robert E. Kaufmann, headmaster of the school. "In taking a good, hard look at this country in the last 10 or 15 years, we came to the realization that certain modes of education may not be as beneficial to students as they may have been 20 years ago."

The practical reasons for going coed included a falling number of secondary-school students, the existence of fewer all-male schools, and a preference among most teen-agers and their parents for coeducational schools, he said.

'A Major Event'

Situated on a 250-acre campus around the center of a restored colonial village in western Massachusetts, the private secondary school had been viewed by many observers as epitomizing the ideal of single-sex education.

"Deerfield has steadfastly maintained that there's a place for a boys' boarding school," said Selby Holmberg, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Schools. "For it to become coed is a major event." Deerfield was one of 42 all-male boarding schools in the country, according to the nais

"People will say there is still a place for an all-boys school and some say we had an obligation to stay that way," Mr. Kaufmann said.

"But we all agreed we had to do what's best for Deerfield. It was not a broad philosophical statement about coeducation."

Students Stage Protest

When Mr. Kaufmann announced the board's vote, many of the school's 560 students walked out of the campus dining hall in protest, singing the school song and chanting, "Better dead than coed."

The headmaster said last week that student opinion on the decision seemed to be running 2 to 1 against coeducation. "There is unhappiness here," he said.

"A lot of us don't agree with them, but I respect the students' position."

The opposition, he said, "shows that students here really like the school, are loyal to it, and see the advantages of single-sex education."

Most of the school's 95 faculty members and administrators, one-quarter of whom are women, favor coeducation. Opening the school to girls will add "strength and diversity" to the applicant pool, Mr. Kaufmann said.

In recent years, the school had found that many of Deerfield's applicants were choosing coeducational schools over the all-boys institution.

"The market may not be conducive to boys' schools," said Sanford Roeser, former executive director of the Secondary School Admissions Test Board and a consultant to private schools. "They probably were not getting the candidates they wanted."

Although the details of the conversion have yet to be formulated, Mr. Kaufmann said the school would admit girls in 1989, most likely in all grades, 9-12. Enrollment would not be increased by more than about 5 percent, he said.

Few physical changes to the school will be necessary, he said, but changes in the school's programs, rules, and admissions procedures will be required.

Founded in 1797, Deerfield admitted girls from the surrounding rural area of Massachusetts during its first 150 years, but they represented a small minority of the students.

In 1948, Frank L. Boyden, who was headmaster for 66 years, decided to close the school to girls.

Deerfield was one of 60 private secondary schools in 1974 to receive recognition by the U.S. Education Department's "Exemplary Private Schools" program.

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