A Mandate for Equal Access In Conflict With Central's All-Male Tradition
Philadelphia--The last time a girl filed suit to gain admittance to storied Central High School, Philadelphia's elite academic school for boys, the case was fought all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That was in 1977, and Central, one of a vanishing number of single-sex public schools, narrowly won the right to stay that way.
But now three girls are back in court, trying once more to break the Philadelphia School District's all-male admissions policy at Central. And hardly anyone in Philadelphia would be surprised if the case went all the way back up to the High Court again.
Such are the passions that surround Central High, the second-oldest public high school in America and long considered one of the best.
The school remains, 146 years after it was created by an act of the Pennsylvania legislature, as much a Philadelphia institution as the art museum or the statue of William Penn that stands atop City Hall.
Its stately library is thought to be the largest public-school library in the country. Its literary magazine, the Mirror, is the oldest publication of its kind. Its football rivalry with Philadelphia's Northeast High dates from 1892, making it the nation's oldest public-high-school football competition.
Its alumni association, a private endowment, and a scholarship fund together have assets of almost $1 million. And its list of alumni would be the envy of most colleges and universities.
Thomas Eakins, the artist, went to Central, as did Louis Kahn, the architect. And Alexander Woollcott, the literary critic. And Henry George, the economist. And, by some accounts, between a quarter and third of the Philadelphia judiciary.
"When I go to reunions of all the classes I have sponsored, I see everybody who is anybody in the city of Philadelphia," Irving Rotman, a longtime Central teacher, says, groping for a word to describe the hold the school seems to have on its students, past and present.
"When you walk into a room of doctors and lawyers who loved their school--who still wear their high-school rings instead of their college rings--there's got to be something," he adds. "It's an elusive something which I don't fully understand because I didn't go here, but there's got to be something."
Most of the those connected with the school call it "tradition."
The hallmark of the Central tradition has always been its all-male enrollment. But the latest court challenge suggests that to keep it all-male, the school will not be able to rely solely on the legal victory it won five years ago.
In that case, a federal-district-court judge here initially agreed with the student who brought the challenge, Susan Vorchheimer, who argued that her right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was being violated by Central's all-male admissions policy.
But the judge's decision was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which held that Central could remain all-male since equal educational opportunities existed elsewhere in the city--namely at the academically elite Philadelphia High School for Girls.
The appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, said it was upholding Central's admissions policy because of a "respected theory that adolescents may study more effectively in single-sex schools. If [Ms. Vorchheimer] were to prevail, then all public single-sex schools would have to be abolished. The absence of these schools would stifle the ability of the local school board to continue with a respected educational methodology. It follows, too, that those students and parents who prefer an education in a public single-sex school would be denied their freedom of choice."
And that ruling stood after the Supreme Court, in April 1977, found itself split 4 to 4 on the Vorchheimer case, with Justice William Rehnquist abstaining because he had missed the oral arguments in the case.
There are significant differences, though, to the new legal challenge, filed in August in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court on behalf of the three girls by the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu), the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Women's Law Project, a Philadelphia-based women's-rights law firm.
Like Ms. Vorchheimer, the three girls, Elizabeth Newberg, Pauline H. King, and Jessica S. Bonn, all 16, argue that their 14th Amendment rights are being violated by the school district's refusal to admit them to Central, described in the suit as "the finest academic secondary school in the School District of Philadelphia and one of the finest in the nation."
But unlike Ms. Vorchheimer, the three also argue that the school's all-male admissions policy violates the Equal Rights Amendment (era) to the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states that equality under the law shall not be denied "because of the sex of the individual."
The Pennsylvania era, according to their lawyers, Arthur H. Bryant of the aclu and Rita L. Bernstein of the Women's Law Project, is an absolute standard prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex--period. (Pennsylvania is one of 16 states with an equal-rights amendment.)
Thus, the lawyers say, their clients do not necessarily have to prove that Central High is the best academic institution in the Philadelphia school system, the nation's fifth largest with about 210,000 students, in order to win the case, even though most people in the city believe that it is.
No one seems to know precisely how many single-sex public schools remain in the United States; a spokesman for the National Center for Education Statistics said recently that the organization has done no research on the topic. But it seems clear that their numbers are dwindling.
Central High and Girls High are the only two single-sex public schools left in Philadelphia. In New York City, only Washing-ton Irving High in Manhattan, for girls, and DeWitt Clinton High in the Bronx, for boys, remain single-sex.
According to Ms. Bernstein, a 1981 sample of 6,000 school districts nationally, surveyed by the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights, found 86 all-male and 106 all-female schools. Many of the boys' schools were vocational-technical schools and many of the girls' schools were for pregnant students.
Merits or Demerits
Absent from the legal briefs in the latest case--but apparent in the courtroom--is mention of the merits or demerits of single-sex education, which Central's president, Howard Carlisle, thinks is the real issue.
"Our boys are very proud of the fact that they are in the last bastion of single-sex male public education," says Mr. Carlisle, who graduated from Central in 1934. "I think it's the lack of distraction. Adolescents posture and preen for the opposite sex. It's something that takes them away from doing their best work in class."
And nowhere are Mr. Carlisle's sentiments on the value of single-sex education more widely held than at Girls High, where two of the three plaintiffs, Ms. King and Ms. Bonn, are students.
When the suit was filed, the Girls High faculty and an estimated 99 percent of the school's students erupted in protest at the thought of girls attending Central. Their fear was, and is, that Girls High, two blocks from Central in the city's Olney section, will be closed or merged with Central if the three win the case, since enrollments at the two schools have been declining precipitously in recent years.
Girls High and Central both draw their students from all parts of the city and both share the same stringent entrance requirements--California Achievement Test scores at or above the 82nd percentile and not more than one C in a major subject for the two preceding years.
The two schools are each other's academic equals, according to Mr. Carlisle and Girls High's principal, Marion L. Street. And one of the reasons they are as good as they are, the two principals say, is because they are sex-segregated.
There is at Girls High, says Ms. Street, "the lack of distraction, the ability to concentrate on women, and the opportunity for women to assume leadership roles. I've been a principal of coed schools, and there's an amazing difference."
"What [the three girls] are doing is not helping women," she asserts. "They're just destroying another opportunity for women."
So the two of them, Mr. Carlisle and Ms. Street, upholders of the tradition and keepers of the faith at Philadephia's two proudest public schools, are determined to fight to the bitter end.
If girls are admitted to Central by court order, Mr. Carlisle says, the school "would never be the same. It wouldn't be Central High School. Neither would there be Girls High School. They'd be starting another school from scratch."
Even without the lawsuit, though, these are not the best of times at Central High.
Down the school's long main corridor, wainscotted in brown marble, reproductions of classic paintings still hang in heavy, gilt frames. And there is still a cer-tain atmosphere in the hallway, a classicism evoked by the masters on the walls outside every classroom--Rembrandt, Goya, Rubens, Cezanne.
It is an atmosphere, says Santo Diano, a teacher and himself a Central alumnus, "of study, a respect for knowledge that pervades the place and gets under your skin."
And Mr. Carlisle, for one, still thinks the school deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Stuyvesant High in Manhattan, the Bronx High School of Science, Lowell High in San Francisco, and Boston Latin High, the only public high school that is older.
All 1,100 of Central's students--about a quarter of whom are in the school's mentally-gifted program for students with I.Q.'s of 130 or above--must take five major subjects in each of their four years in order to graduate. All of them must read at least eight books a year outside of the books they study in English classes.
And when they graduate--about 95 percent of them go to college, often to the nation's most prestigious institutions--it is certain they will have read Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and David Copperfield, as well as Chaucer, romantic and contemporary poetry, ballads, and ethnic literature--all required.
"No other school in the city can touch this place," Mr. Diano says. "There was a time when I would have said that no other school in the country could have touched this place."
But there is, despite the excellence Central has been able to maintain, a sense of class these days, a feeling, as Mr. Diano notes, that the school has slipped just a bit, an attitude that the school district has never really appreciated Central for what it has done.
"This school district has never really had a commitment to maintaining Central as the crown jewel of its school system," Mr. Diano said. "It always has been, but only through the efforts of its alumni and its administrators, who, with one exception, have been Central alumni and have maintained the tradition and had a commitment to the school in their hearts."
So even Central, it seems, is not immune to the vicissitudes of urban education.
Graffiti are splashed on the school's art-deco entranceway now. There is a shortage of supplies and equipment and secretarial help at the school. A recent robbery cost Central 20 microcomputers, wiping out its computer lab.
And then there was the 50-day teacher strike in the fall of 1981, the second in two years, which drove more students from Central than from any other public school in the city to private and parochial schools, according to Vice Principal Charles Edelson.
Most disturbing to Mr. Carlisle, though, is the school's declining enrollment--which has dropped from 2,500 students in 1962 to this year's 1,100. He attributes a substantial portion of that decline to competition for students from the city's magnet schools, among them the High School for Engineering and Science, the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and the High School for International Affairs.
The magnet schools, which are looked down upon by the faculty at Central, were created starting in 1979 to attract desegregated enrollments with special academic offerings and such enticements as free transportation from anywhere in the city, a perquisite Central does not offer.
There was, Mr. Carlisle has said, no need to create the magnet schools, since the students attending them could have received a high-quality education in a desegregated setting by attending Central or Girls High. Ms. Street has said she thought the magnet schools were created so that the school district could say that it had a greater number of schools that were desegregated, regardless of whether the number of students in desegregated classrooms had increased or not.
Having said that, Mr. Carlisle and Ms. Street find themselves complaining about the magnet schools in exactly the same way that principals of Philadelphia's troubled comprehensive high schools have complained about Central and Girls for years.
Those principals didn't like the way the two elite schools siphoned off the best students, just as Mr. Carlisle and Ms. Street don't like the way the magnet schools are siphoning off their students.
But Mr. Carlisle says the problem of declining enrollment at Central and Girls goes beyond competition from the magnet schools to a much deeper phenomenon: a massive flight of academic talent out of the Philadelphia public schools over the past decade.
Each year, he notes, the number of incoming freshmen needed to maintain enrollments at even their current levels at Central and Girls virtually exceeds the total number of students in the entire system at or above the 82nd percentile on the California Achievement Tests.
"That is, in a sense," he says, "an indictment of public education in Philadelphia at the elementary level."
So the lawsuit filed by three girls who want to go to Central High looms, in Mr. Carlisle's mind, as a potential straw that could break the camel's back. Without the suit, he says, Central could survive the enrollment decline and all the other problems it faces, and survive them quite nicely.
With the suit, if the girls win, the diminished enrollments at Central and Girls could lead to a merger.
There is, at both schools, the feeling that the girls trying to enter Central are being used by their lawyers, who, Mr. Carlisle and Ms. Street say, are more interested in smashing what is to them an abstract sex barrier than considering the possible destruction of two outstanding schools.
To which the aclu's Mr. Bryant replies: "The white schools in the South (in the 1950's and 1960's) said the poor black children were being used by the naacp
"It's an interesting argument," he said, "but the fact is that they're keeping people out of Central because of their sex."
The case has already touched off an almost comic comparison between Central and Girls, as Mr. Bryant and Ms. Bernstein attempt to document Central's alleged superiority. The depositions are beginning to pile high.
In a deposition from Mr. Carlisle, for example, Mr. Bryant sought to underscore the value of an original painting by the Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins hanging in Central's library.
Later, in an interview, Mr. Carlisle called the painting "one of the worst things Eakins ever did" and said, "The attorneys for the plaintiffs are making such a big deal about that, but they don't make such a big deal about the [Eakins original] at Girls High School, which is 10 times better."
But proving that Central is superior to Girls or any other high school in Philadelphia could all come down to an assessment of tradition.
"I think the proud tradition is one of the great things about Central," Ms. Bernstein says. "But to have the linchpin of that proud tradition sex-segregation absolutely baffles me. I don't think a proud tradition has to depend upon the exclusion of females."
Even if all the courses at Girls High are of equal quality to those at Central, Ms. Bernstein adds, the Girls High tradition isn't quite as strong.
"That intangible contributes to the esteem of the students who are at Central now," she says. "That intangible is worth something."
Indeed, retort Mr. Carlisle and Ms. Street, the intangible of tradition is worth something. But what Ms. Bernstein fails to understand, they maintain, is that sex-segregation is as much a part of both schools' tradition as academic excellence is. And the option of sex-segregated education, they argue, should at the very least be maintained.
The boys at Central, Mr. Carlisle says, "are in a school that has a tradition of being single-sex and a tradition of high achievement, and it's possible that that might change if they were in a coed school. Why quarrel with success?"
Vol. 02, Issue 19