Education

All Girls, All The Time: February 1991

January 01, 2000 6 min read
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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

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