A School Of Their Own

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

PINK MARBLE WALLS LINE THE FOYER OF the massive brick building. Two larger-than-lifesize statues of women in classical pose dominate the entrance. Such imagery and opulence are not typical of public schools. This, however, is no typical public school. It's the Philadelphia High School for Girls, the last public single-sex high school in the United States.

Single-sex schooling has gone out of style, something the 65 teachers at "Girls' High'' can't understand. They say their school is a teacher's paradise, where they can offer advancedplacement math to a packed house, crack a joke without losing control of the class, and teach without stopping every 10 minutes to ask for attention. Substitute teachers confess that they actually enjoy stepping in.

"When I got here nine years ago, I hugged the principal,'' English teacher Mort Bender exclaims. "Out of 32 years of teaching, these nine years have been the best.''

During the last three decades, a combination of factors, including anti-discrimination laws and declining enrollments, forced public single-sex schools to become coeducational. But Girls' High, located in one of Philadelphia's multi-ethnic, lower-income neighborhoods, has been able to hang on because girls flock to its doors--and because it doesn't expressly exclude boys. As a college-preparatory magnet, the school's admission policy requires high academic and behavioral standards; the policy says nothing about gender. Since boys haven't been clamoring to get in, Girls' High has remained an all-girls school. Philadelphia boys who want a top-notch education can apply to Central High School, a coeducational, collegepreparatory magnet located down the street.

With a coed magnet school nearby, why do girls choose to attend the all-female school? Girls' High teachers have an answer: because it works.

If it's fair to judge a school by the success of its alumnae, then Girls' High does work. The list of notable alumnae includes Barbara Harris, the first female bishop of the Episcopal Church; attorney Mary Lathrop, an 1878 graduate who was one of the first women to plead a case before the U.S. Supreme Court; Constance Clayton, Philadelphia's first female superintendent of schools; and about a dozen current Girls' High teachers.

Even more remarkable is the loyalty Girls' High alumnae feel toward their alma mater. Graduates of most high schools only return to their old stomping ground for an occasional homecoming game or a 20-year reunion. The alumnae association at Girls' High, on the other hand, is so active that it has a permanent meeting room at the school and so prosperous that it had to incorporate. Graduates often remember the school with their hearts, their time--and their checkbooks.

The unique atmosphere of Girls' High is almost palpable. To the left of the statues in the foyer stands a display case of memorabilia dating back to the school's founding in 1848. A gracefully penned honor code-- signed by all the members of a bygone class--and a student-authored cookbook conjure up images of girls in ankle-length skirts and starched white blouses learning to stitch French seams, read Wordsworth, and separate egg whites from the yolks.

With the school's strong sense of history, it wouldn't seem surprising to see girls in lace dresses walking down the hallways. Instead, when the bell rings, out of the classrooms pour a colorful stream of girls slinging backpacks over their shoulders and lugging dog-eared physics, math, and literature books as thick as bricks. These girls radiate ambition and drive; they have more in common with Betty Friedan than Betty Crocker.

And they aren't part of the silver-spoon, white-bread crowd, either. The school's 1,100 students are representative of Philadelphia's economic and cultural spectrum; only 36 percent of them are white.

Take senior Becki Pizarro. A Hispanic girl from a working-class family, Becki is shooting for a couple of college scholarships and hopes to become a professional photographer. She was introduced to Girls' High through her older sister, a 1987 alumna. Like a well-loved recipe, Girls' High is often passed down from sibling to sibling and mother to daughter. Becki says she chose Girls' High not just to follow in her sister's footsteps but also because she and her family believe there's no better place to get an education.

And she doesn't even miss having boys around. In fact, Becki and her classmates declare that they're better off without them--in class, that is. "We're not strange or anything,'' says Kelly Anderson, a talkative, friendly senior. "We get invited to parties and dances.'' Like many of her friends, Kelly has a steady boyfriend.

Students at Girls' High simply separate studying and socializing, senior Zonora Warner explains. "You're not here to talk with your boyfriend,'' she says. "So, when you're here, you study.'' The six girls sitting with her at a table in the guidance office nod their heads in agreement.

At the school, they say, girls avoid the pressure to "play dumb'' for the boys who don't like smart girls. Kelly, Zonora, and their friends insist that having a scholarly image in a coed school can hurt a girl's popularity. But in an all-girl setting, they feel no temptation to suppress their studious sides.

This translates into good news for teachers: They can teach more advanced classes. In fact, half the student body takes honors or advanced-placement courses. Although Philadelphia requires only two years of study in a foreign language, many Girls' High students study foreign languages all four years. To the delight of math department head Irene Farley, student enrollment in math courses outnumbers the school's student population because many students take more than the required number of math courses. "The students don't seem to need pushing,'' she says.

Teachers agree that the absence of boys is key. Computer science and physical education teacher Gail DeRitis says she can teach more effectively because boys--"the biggest distraction for teenage girls''--are absent. "Here,'' she says, "I can do what I went to college to learn to do: teach. At other schools, everything else got in the way.''

Farley, like DeRitis, taught in coeducational schools before transferring to Girls' High. The math teacher has no doubt that mixing boys and girls in the classroom makes teaching tougher. "Students are trying to define their sexual identity with their raging hormones,'' Farley says. "Playing to the opposite sex and wanting to be noticed pulls their attention away from what's happening in class.'' Without boys to "perform'' for, she and other teachers say, the girls seem more relaxed.

Teachers point to another benefit created by the absence of boys: Girls fill all the leadership positions in the school's many social and academic clubs. "Every president of every organization is a girl,'' says veteran teacher and student-counsel adviser Mary Elizabeth Logan. "This results in a great deal of self-confidence.''

Education researcher Valerie Lee isn't surprised that teachers and students at Girls' High rave about their school. Lee's extensive research on the effects of gender grouping, conducted primarily in Catholic schools, has shown that single-sex schools provide educational advantages for their students--particularly girls.

The University of Michigan professor notes that students in all-girl schools take more academic courses, hold higher educational aspirations, develop more self-esteem, have fewer stereotypical conceptions of gender roles, and demonstrate higher academic achievement in reading, math, and science than girls in coeducational schools.

Of course, factors other than the single-sex status of girls' schools also contribute to their success, Lee notes. The staff at Girls' High agrees.

The tough admission policy, for example, guarantees that the school's students arrive ready to learn and with no serious behavior problems. The 7th graders who apply must get good grades and rank in the 85th percentile on the Philadelphia achievement test.

But perhaps more important than test scores is the attitude of Girls' High applicants. They consider academic achievement more important than becoming a cheerleader or homecoming queen; after all, Girls' High doesn't even have pompom squads or royal courts. As one senior puts it, "We're the brainiacs.''

Another factor contributing to the school's success involves the ghosts in the display case. Around here it's mysteriously referred to as the "intangible spirit.'' Becki Pizarro says that everyone has got it.

Logan, who is known as the guardian of the intangible spirit, explains: "The intangible spirit is a feeling of unity that links all the generations of students who have been here and are here right now. It's shared experiences with people who have common interests and common training.'' She ought to know-- both her mother and grandmother were once Girls' High girls.

The intangible spirit materializes in many ways. Unlike most students, these girls know their school song and can recite the Latin and English translations of the school motto--Vincit qui se vincit; she conquers who conquers herself. And they say they can feel the spirit in the school's many rituals. One such ritual, "Move-up Day,'' a communal celebration of the year-end excitement students feel about moving on to the next grade, is particularly evocative.

Each grade level prepares for the June event by writing a theme song and designing a T-shirt emblem. On Move-up Day, the 9th, 10th, and 11th graders sit in designated areas of the auditorium. The seniors, dressed in costumes that represent their future occupations, take center stage. In a riotous version of "musical chairs,'' each class literally moves up to take the seats of the preceding class.

Participation in this kind of unique ritual makes students feel connected to previous classes that have performed the same ceremonies. Zonora calls it "serious bonding.''

But the same traditions that foster this sense of unity can also give rise to a suffocating, not-this-again feeling. "Everything is so traditional,'' one junior complains during a lunch-hour conversation. "You can never break out of tradition. It's like we're living in the 1800s.''

The comment provokes a lively discussion among the girl and her three classmates. Amid the usual cafeteria clatter, the four argue over one of the school's most venerable traditions--the graduation ceremony. Instead of donning caps and gowns, Girls' High students have always worn white dresses and carried red carnations. One student says she thinks caps and gowns might be better; the others cry out in protest.

By the end of the discussion, all four agree that they never really feel stifled by the school. Although the rituals require a certain amount of conformity, they say, their individuality is respected and expressed through student-centered academic, artistic, and social projects. Each year, says Logan, the girls debate over caps and carnations, and each year they vote to renew the old traditions.

And yet, many of these rituals and traditions, in fact the very character of the school itself, could be compromised if one determined and qualified boy were admitted to Girls' High. "I don't think it's the desire of any male to come to Girls' High, but we walk on eggshells,'' Principal Marion Steet admits.

For years, the school has been going quietly about its business. But now, after hearing so many people complain about public schools, Steet thinks the time has come for educators to acknowledge the experience of Girls' High and take another look at single-sex education. Folding her hands on the huge oak table in her office, she smiles and says: "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.''

Vol. 02, Issue 05, Page 1-24

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories