Despite a spate of legal challenges in recent years to single-sex public education in the United States, California is launching an unprecedented number of public schools where boys and girls learn separately.
Three districts opened “single-gender academies” this fall, located at existing middle schools but with different names and staffs. Two more districts and one county are expected to start such academies later in the school year, tripling the estimated number of all-boys and all-girls public schools nationwide.
The California academies are certain to be keenly watched by legal experts eager to learn whether they can survive court challenges and by academic researchers interested in whether same-sex education pays off in higher achievement.
The handful of public schools founded in the past few years to educate only boys or girls have been dogged by discrimination complaints, and several have been forced to modify their admissions policies. (“Educators Debate Impact of Ruling on Single-Sex Classes,” July 10, 1996.)
California officials say they hope to avoid the legal quagmire by setting up identical all-girls and all-boys schools on the same campus.
“No other state is offering this kind of dual-academy approach,” said Karen Humphrey, the state education department’s coordinator of single-gender academies. “We want them to be legally sound and educationally sound.”
In both of those ways, California’s academies will serve as national guinea pigs. Some research shows that girls and inner-city boys tend to learn more in single-sex classrooms. Yet those studies are not considered conclusive and have been limited mostly to private schools.
Some California educators believe students will flourish in single-sex environments free from the teasing, flirting, and self-conscious behavior typical when adolescent boys and girls share a classroom.
“Middle school is often where kids start to exhibit problems, and if they don’t get remedied, they’re not going to do well in high school and beyond,” said John Michaelson, the principal of Marina Middle School in San Francisco, which has enrolled 180 students in two single-sex academies on the same campus. “Hopefully, the academies will offer less distractions.”
Aiming for Equality
Emilie Bigo, a 7th grader who attends an academy for girls at Brookside Middle School in Lincoln, 45 miles south of Sacramento, said she doesn’t miss the boys. “The class is a lot quieter, and we get much more work done.”
Out of $5 million in state money available this year, the San Francisco Unified, Lincoln Unified, and Butte Valley school districts each received $500,000 to open single-sex academies. Eastside Unified in San Jose, Ravenswood City in East Palo Alto, and Orange County are expecting grants later this year.
A 1996 state law requires the districts to ensure that enrollment in the academies is voluntary, that students have equal access to them, and that they provide equal educational opportunities. Asked about any differences between the boys’ and girls’ academies at Brookside Middle School, Principal Jason Messer said “absolutely none.”
“As far as supplies, curriculum, and teaching methodology,” he added, “they are exactly the same, down to the number of No. 2 pencils I ordered.”
But despite the pains taken to create lawsuit-proof schools, several legal experts doubted the academies could withstand court challenge.
“We have yet to see the theory of ‘separate but equal’ ever pan out,” said Marcia D. Greenberger, a co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. “I would say these schools in California have a lot of red flags attached to them.”
The only U.S. Supreme Court action dealing with single-sex public education at the K-12 level dates back to 1976, when the justices let stand an appeals court ruling that Philadelphia’s all-girls and all-boys high schools did not violate the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
But recent attempts to set up separate public schools for girls and boys have faced almost immediate legal challenge or government scrutiny:
- The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether the Young Women’s Leadership School, which opened in 1996 in New York City, discriminates against boys.
- The Iowa Department of Education blocked two public school districts last year from starting single-sex programs.
- In 1991, a federal judge clamped down on three proposed schools for African-American boys in Detroit, which were challenged in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The district was forced to open enrollment to girls.
ACLU a Common Foe
The American Civil Liberties Union, which often challenges single-sex programs, has not yet taken a position on the California academies.
“Our main concern is the justification for separating girls and boys,” said Margaret M. Russell, who chairs an ACLU committee studying single-gender education. “The most persuasive reason would be to remedy past discrimination, particularly against girls. Then the program must be narrowly tailored to meet those objectives.”
But Gov. Pete Wilson, a driving force behind the academies, is promoting them not as a discrimination remedy but as a form of school choice. In his State of the State speech in January, the Republican governor spoke of his “conviction that parents deserve still greater choice when their children are trapped in failing schools.”
The governor’s stance on the academies mirrors his advocacy of charter schools as an alternative to conventional public education. And those who question single-sex education pose the same arguments as charter school critics: What about the vast majority of children who remain in regular public schools?
“Single-sex education doesn’t correct the gender-equity problems found in public education,” said Krys Wulff, the president-elect of the American Association of University Women, a Washington-based group that has issued reports contending that girls are shortchanged by the education system. “These single-gender academies are a short-term, political fix.”
She and some other feminist activists argue that a better solution is for educators to foster coeducational environments that better meet the distinct needs of boys and girls.
Thriving on Their Own
Harking back to Harvard University professor Carol Gilligan’s landmark study of adolescent girls in 1982, some research shows that girls who attend classes without boys tend to participate more in class, have stronger self-esteem, and achieve better grades.
Other studies have noted that girls tend to lag behind their male peers, particularly in math and science. (“Girls Will--and Should--Be Girls,” March 30, 1994.)
The research is less persuasive regarding boys, who tend to be more aggressive at getting a teacher’s attention, some researchers say. But some studies have found that poor and minority boys benefit from all-male classes.
While children from low-income, black, and Hispanic families are heavily represented in California, the state’s new academies are not limiting enrollment to students traditionally considered at risk for academic problems on the basis of their family backgrounds.
And for some parents enrolling their children in the academies, the attraction is simply the extra resources coming from the state.
“It sounded like a wonderful opportunity,” said Susan Klass, whose son is attending Brookside Middle School’s boys’ academy. “The classes will be smaller, there will be more computers, and even pottery wheels.”