School & District Management

Number of Single-Sex Schools Growing

October 19, 2004 3 min read
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N.Y.C.-based network opens schools for girls in urban districts

Since 1996, the Young Women’s Leadership Foundation has opened six single-sex public schools—five for girls and one for boys.

The New York City-based organization, which aims to create educational options for students in urban public schools, has schools in East Harlem and the Bronx in New York, and in Chicago, Dallas, and Philadelphia.

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The growth of single-sex public schooling has been especially rapid recently. Ten single- sex schools opened during the 2004-05 school year alone, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, based in Poolesville, Md. There are now 34 public single-sex schools and 113 coed public schools that offer single-gender classes, the association says.

In part, the interest in single-sex public education stems from a friendlier climate in Washington under the Bush administration.

The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights has proposed amending the regulations governing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—which prohibits sex dis crimination in programs that receive federal money—to allow more flexibility in offering single-sex schools or classes. Anticipating the change, some schools have started the practices.

The department also has commissioned a review of the academic literature about the effects of single-sex schools, headed by Cornelius Riordan, a sociology professor at Providence College in Rhode Island. The study is being financed by the department’s Women’s Educational Equity Act program.

“The department is interested because it views single-sex schools as another opportunity for school choice,” said David Thomas, a spokesman for the Education Department.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act also allows local education agencies to use money from the law’s innovative-programs block grants to support same-gender schools and classrooms. That $297 million program, however, is proposed for either elimination or severe cuts for fiscal 2005. (“Senate Plan Provides Bigger Spending Boost for Federal School Aid,” Sept. 22, 2004.)

Kathleen Ponze, the principal of the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, believes single-sex schools are best for students. Last year, the graduation rate at her 385-student school stood at 98 percent. Two-thirds of the students are Latina, 33 percent are African-American, and about 85 percent qualify to receive subsidized lunches.

“In the large, coed schools, I have seen kids fall between the cracks because of issues of sex, alcohol, and drugs,” Ms. Ponze said. “It is hard to create a safe base for them there.”

Fans and Foes

In Chicago, the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, which opened in 2000, is the only all-girls school in the city. This past June, when the first class of seniors graduated, Oprah Winfrey was the keynote speaker. The media mogul also spoke at the 2001 graduation ceremony at the East Harlem school.

Ann Rubinstein Tisch and her husband, Andrew H. Tisch, the chairman of the executive committee of the New York City-based Loews Corp., teamed up with the New York City public schools and the Center for Educational Innovation to launch the East Harlem school. Two years later, Ms. Tisch established the foundation.

“The option of a single-sex environment was available only to affluent, parochial, and yeshiva students,” she said in a recent interview.

But expanding single-sex schooling remains controversial. The American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to the Education Department in April opposing the proposed changes to the Title IX regulations.

“The assumption that all boys or girls learn in a certain way can make them lose some opportunities,” said Emily Martin, a staff lawyer with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

Kathy Whitmire, the executive director of the Westminster, S.C.-based Cherokee Boys School, said she believes that being part of a single-gender environment diminishes some of the pressures boys might feel during adolescence.

The therapeutic boarding school, which opened a year and a half ago, takes boys ages 11 to 15 with attention deficit disorder and other problems, including difficulty in managing their anger and forming healthy attachments.

Because some studies suggest that boys need large amounts of space, the eight-student school is located in the woods. The boys work in an organic garden, learn to crochet and knit, prepare blackberry and apple butter, and take part in many other recreational activities.

“This gives the students the opportunity to explore, research, or camp,” Ms. Whitmire said.

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