All Girls, All The Time: February 1991

January 01, 2000 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Think of a 150-year-old girls’ school, and you might picture a classical building with an opulent pink marble entrance, candlelit ceremonies, a proud and active alumnae. The Philadelphia High School for Girls, founded in 1848, has all this and more: a large selection of Advanced Placement courses, a 98 percent college-acceptance rate, an award-winning robotics team. And here’s the kicker: It’s public.

In spite of Title IX, there are still no boys at the Philadelphia High School for Girls.

In 1991, when Teacher Magazine first toured “Girls’ High,” the college-preparatory magnet school located in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood had the distinction of being one of the last single-sex high schools in the nation. Yet, the faculty and students seemed unfazed by their Dodo-bird status. Teachers reported that the absence of boys—"the biggest distraction for teenage girls"—enabled them to teach more advanced classes more effectively. Students weaned on Duran Duran happily recited the school motto (vincit qui ce vincit: she conquers who conquers herself) and spoke approvingly of the “serious bonding” that the school’s many rituals engendered. Girls’ High wasn’t the last of a dying breed, they insisted; it was a model for the future. Then-principal Marion Steet bragged, “Around here, we’re fond of saying that Girls’ High isn’t the last single-sex public school, it’s just the first of more to come.”

At the time, that seemed less a credible prediction than wishful thinking. After all, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits federally funded programs from excluding students on the basis of gender, had effectively abolished public single-sex schools. Certainly, Girls’ High was living on borrowed time. Readers could only wonder when this grand dame of educational institutions would be forced to fold or accept boys.

Turns out there’s life in the old girl yet: Nine years later, Girls’ High is still going strong-without boys. The school manages to get around the Title IX prohibition with the same strategy it employed back in 1991: It simply remains silent on the issue of gender. The school has no written policy explicitly excluding boys. Some have inquired about attending the school over the past decade, current principal Geraldine Myles confides. “We try to help them find what they’re looking for,” Myles says-somewhere else. So far, the dodge has worked, mainly because another college-preparatory magnet with similar course offerings, coed Central High, is right down the street.

Still, time has wrought some changes at the school. Since the 1991 Teacher article, Girls’ High has grown from 1,100 students to 1,480. Myles believes this reflects the baby-boom echo that’s filling high schools citywide rather than renewed interest in single-sex education, but she nevertheless welcomes the school’s new “large” classification because it means more district funding. Although Girls’ High remains racially and socioeconomically diverse, now more students come from poor families, Myles reports. “This impacts us in direct ways,” she says. “Many of our students feel they must work after school, even though they maintain rigorous academic schedules. It interferes with extracurricular activities.”

The same factors that attracted students to the school in 1991 draw them today, the principal says: “Our environment is one that promotes self-esteem: We have high academic standards, and there are leadership opportunities for girls. Also, in an urban environment, school safety is an issue. We’re one of the safest schools in the city.” Two years ago, students, faculty, and alumni celebrated the school’s 150th anniversary with a series of events that included the opening of a public archives room, the dedication of a faculty remembrance garden, the unveiling of additions to a large school mural, and a pageant.

With its venerable history and staying power, Girls’ High has become an inspiration of sorts for a new generation of single-sex schooling advocates. Girls’ schools, in particular, are back in style. In the last five years alone, some 31 new schools opened their doors exclusively to girls, according to the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, a nine-year-old membership organization. And in a recent survey, the coalition found that average enrollment at member schools had jumped nearly 15 percent since its launch, ahead of the 12 percent figure forecast for all schools by the U.S. Department of Education. The number of applications to girls’ schools soared by 33 percent during the same period.

Meg Moulton, co-executive director of NCGS, says nearly a decade of research showing that single-sex learning can give girls a big academic boost, particularly in crucial subjects like math, science, and technology, has made girls’ schools an attractive option once again. “There’s been a huge flip in public opinion,” she says. “We used to spend most of our time defending the option; now we spend our time elaborating on the opportunities it provides girls.”

Although only one of the nation’s new girls’ schools, Young Women’s Leadership High School in New York City, is public, at least two others are in the works, one in Chicago and another in Denver. Seven public school districts in California have opened single-sex academies within larger coed schools; boys and girls go to school together but study academic subjects separately. And public schools in a number of other states, Moulton says, are experimenting with same-sex classes “in a fairly brazen way.”

Regardless of their intentions, such schools and programs rankle civil rights activists, who see them as a direct violation of Title IX. As a result, most districts that venture down the single-sex path end up in court or answering to government investigators. Not all programs emerge intact. Some schools, like the California academies, have skirted the issue for the time being by creating comparable programs for girls and boys. The 156-year-old Western High School in Baltimore, the oldest of the nation’s three public girls’ schools, manages to deflect discrimination charges because it can point boys to other district schools with the same academic offerings.

Young Women’s Leadership High hasn’t been so lucky. No other New York City high school offers a comparable curriculum, and consequently the school has been a magnet for controversy since it opened in 1996. Three and a half years ago, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Rights Coalition, and the New York chapter of the National Organization of Women—all advocates of improving opportunities for girls in coeducational settings—filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, charging that the school discriminates by gender, in violation of Title IX. For now, federal officials are looking into the complaint. Meanwhile, Leadership High is getting rave reviews from both teachers and students. And this past fall, the New York City Board of Education, in a vote of confidence, nearly doubled the school’s enrollment. Still, it appears that for most public girls’ schools to survive in this age of equity awareness, they must follow the lead of Girls’ High and learn to live by the letter, if not the intent, of the law.

—Samantha Stainburn

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP