At Solar Preparatory School for Girls here, there is no presumption that boys are better at science than girls. In fact, dispelling such stereotypes and nurturing science, math, leadership, and other skills often deemed to come more naturally to boys is central to the mission of the K-8 public school.
That kind of environment is what Brandy Markey wants for her daughter, Orlaith. The bubbly 6-year-old, her mother believes, might be more apt to gain confidence and interest in STEM subjects in a school where the clear message is that girls can, and do, excel in such male-dominated fields.
“Single-gender was a big highlight for me—along with the social and emotional component,” Markey said, explaining why she chose to send Orlaith to a school outside her neighborhood.
Single-gender schools have long held appeal for students and parents who believe they provide a learning environment with fewer distractions and devoid of biases about what academic pursuits are best for boys or girls, but their numbers are relatively small. Several urban districts, however, opened new single-gender public schools this school year, including three in Dallas, as a way to provide more options for families, attract parents who might otherwise leave for charter, private, or suburban schools, and increase access to specialized academic programs.
Dallas’ new single-gender schools are part of the district’s push to provide parents with options. A Public School Choice program, an initiative started last year, allows parents and students to select school models that they think “best fit” their needs. Choice school models can include Montessori, International Baccalaureate, military academies, dual-language schools, STEM or STEAM (umbrella terms for science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math), and business schools. The “choice” schools can be completely new, or startups, with no enrollment boundaries, such as Solar Preparatory, which admits students through a lottery. They can also be existing neighborhood schools that apply to the district to redesign their academic model. The district hopes to open 35 choice schools by 2020.
Other districts, including Los Angeles and the District of Columbia, have new single-gender schools as well, and Austin and Fort Worth, Texas, have added such schools.
While single-sex schools have their advocates, they have proven controversial and raised questions about their effectiveness. A 2014 meta-analysis of 184 studies on single-gender education found “modest advantages” in math performance, but not in science, for boys and girls in single-sex settings in the uncontrolled studies the authors reviewed. The analysis, by Erin Pahlke of Whitman College and Janet Shibley Hyde and Carlie M. Allison of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also found “trivial differences” in performance in math and science between the students in co-educational settings and those in single-gender settings in controlled studies.
Single-gender schools have also fueled legal challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union, a major opponent of single-gender schools and classes, warns districts against going down that route because they are likely to bump up against civil rights and education laws, including Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funds.
The organization has challenged assertions that boys and girls learn differently and need different educational methods, one of the justifications districts make for creating such schools. “We believe that the public school system should not be in the business of teaching boys and girls differently or reinforcing notions about purported differences between boys and girls,” said Galen Sherwin, a senior staff lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.
As the number of single-gender classrooms and schools has grown in the past decade, the
Public school districts are not barred under federal law from offering single-sex schools, but districts have to provide comparable opportunities to both sexes.
Rebecca Bigler, a professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who has followed the growth of single-gender schools in her state, said that districts in recent years have shifted their rationale for single-gender schools away from the academics to arguing that they are providing choice to low-income communities of color. The growth of single-gender schools in Texas, however, was not a result of a groundswell of support from communities and students, but because of the support of private donors, she said.
The first two single-gender schools in Dallas, Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, which opened in 2004, and Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, which opened in 2011, are magnet schools with waiting lists.
In considering the school models, the combination of the single-gender approach and strong instructional programs—especially additional programming around STEM, leadership, dual-language, and other areas—appealed to district officials, said Mohammed Choudhury, the district’s director of transformation and innovation.
The three new schools have different areas of emphasis. Young Men’s Leadership Academy at Fred F. Florence Middle School will focus on leadership. The Young Women’s STEAM Academy at Balch Springs Middle School will emphasize science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. Solar Preparatory School for Girls at James P. Bonham School is a dual-language program with a STEAM focus.
Solar Prep has an additional layer. The district used the school to pilot a socioeconomic-diversity program to ensure half the students would come from low-income families and half would not. (Because attendance boundaries generally reflect neighborhood lines, schools often reinforce segregation: About 85 percent of schools are at least 80 percent low-income, and wealthier and middle-class students tend to go to magnet schools or those in wealthier attendance zones.)
Forty percent of the students at Solar Prep identify as Hispanic, 30 percent as white, and 30 percent as black. (Some students checked more than one box.)
Building Confidence, Leadership
While academics are the foremost concern of the educators at Solar Prep, Nancy Bernardino, the school’s founding principal, said they also aim to help the girls celebrate who they are as women. The school uses Project Lead the Way curriculum, which features hands-on and project-based-learning experiences. Coding will be part of the curriculum. Every student uses the makerspace room every day. Each classroom has adopted a “fierce female” whose photograph is posted on the door. (“Fierce females” include first ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama and Sarah Martinez Tucker, the CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative and a former undersecretary of education.) The school also has an extended day.
“We have a mantra that we are not just … preparing them for school,” Bernardino said. “We are preparing them for life. So the experiences that we give them—How do we problem-solve? How do we ask questions? How to be those leaders and that voice for others?—we think that’s what’s preparing them for the real world.”
In that makerspace room one recent day, an art teacher turned to about two-dozen girls who were adroitly contorting neon plastic straws into the shapes of animals.
“What other kinds of animals do we have?” she asked.
“I am going to make a lizard,” another girl said.
At the back of the room, meanwhile, a group of five girls were using LEGO pieces to build a castle. About a dozen others were scattered at computer stations around the room, using a Google program to create architectural and other designs.
“The hope is that they start using their creative skills to build things,” said Maria Marin, a music teacher who was helping out. “A lot of times, they are not given that opportunity. They are being told what to do.”
“Although it may seem like chaos, there is a lot of creativity and imagination going on at the same time,” she said.
The Young Men’s Leadership Academy at Fred F. Florence and the Young Women’s STEAM Academy are about two miles apart. Co-ed institutions last year, they both ran pilot programs in which a select number of grades and students took core classes in single-gender environments.
The results were extremely promising, according to Clarita Rivera, the principal of girls’ academy, and Dawn Walker, the principal of the boys’.
Students in the single-gender classrooms scored higher than their peers in co-ed environments in Balch Springs and the district in nearly all academic measures, Rivera said. Significantly fewer disciplinary incidents were also reported, Rivera said.
In the state’s English arts and reading assessment, for example, 62 percent of the Balch Springs 6th graders in the single-gender environment passed reading, compared with 36 percent of 6th graders in the co-ed classes at the school, according to Rivera. In 7th grade reading, it was 64 percent to 50 percent. Similar differences were seen in math: 75 percent of 6th graders in single-gender students passed, compared with 52 percent of students in co-ed. At the 7th and 8th grade levels, the differences were 2 percentage points and 4 percentage points, respectively.
On a recent afternoon, Rivera popped in and out of classrooms, chatting with students and teachers and showing off the refurbished rooms that students will use as part of the new STEAM focus, including for the school’s robotics program. The walls are decorated with uplifting signs like “Girls Rock!” and others pointing out careers that require knowledge of math, such as architecture, and professions not necessarily associated with the subject such as member of Congress, police officer, or fitness instructor.
Bridgett Ladipo, who teaches astronomy, said so far she’s found her female students far more engaged than they were last year in the co-ed school where she taught.
“We are definitely trying to break the stereotypes that some already have instilled in them,” Ladipo said.
An Appealing Choice for Some
Some of the boys at the Young Men’s Leadership Academy say the school is calmer and less disruptive this year. They like the emphasis on leadership, forging stronger relationships, and helping each other become better students and citizens.
“I see a lot more friendship between us, a lot more cooperation,” said Adrian de la Cruz, a 7th grader.
Barry Jacobs, a lawyer, appears to be the kind of parent the Dallas district was targeting when it embarked on its public school choice program.
Jacobs, who already has a 3rd grader enrolled in the district, was seriously considering sending his 6-year-old daughter, Jane, to a private school. But when he heard about Solar Preparatory School, he decided to give it a shot.
Jacobs, who lives in an affluent Dallas neighborhood, said he liked the idea that parents across the city opted to send their children to the school, a factor that suggests there likely will be greater parental engagement and an increase in the possibility that the school will succeed.
But even if Solar turns out to be a resounding success, the district may not be able to replicate it, he said.
“Can they translate that to the rest of the district, I think the answer is probably no,” he said, “but that is not going to keep me from trying to get the advantage for my daughter, because I think it’s a great opportunity.”
Coverage of issues related to creating opportunities for all American students and their families to choose a quality school is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2016 edition of Education Week as Dallas Expands Choices With Single-Gender Schools