Sunday, February 19, 2006

Girls School

Boys aren't allowed at one Dallas public school:
The bell rings - a polite tone, not a noisy clang - and dozens of girls are suddenly, instantly in the hallway. They wear uniforms - plaid skirts and red sweaters - even knee socks. They chatter and giggle and slam locker doors; they lug oversize backpacks filled with books and laptop computers. And as they hurry off to their afternoon classes, the girls are probably unaware that they're on the cutting edge of what might be the next new thing in education.

The Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School, a public school in the Dallas Independent School District, is housed in a historic building in the city's Oak Lawn district, but the concept behind it - a single-sex public school for girls - is a brand-new experiment for the district.

The school, which started as a seventh- and eighth-grade center in 2004, will add a class each year and graduate its first group of seniors in 2009. For now, its whitewashed halls and spacious classrooms contain 214 girls who applied to attend the new magnet school. More than half of them are Hispanic; 30 percent are African-American. They are bused here from all over Dallas, and most don't come from wealthy areas; the majority live in south and southeast Dallas, in the Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove neighborhoods.

The girls take pre-AP classes; they're encouraged to excel in science and math, to master technology. They talk about college in their seventh-grade classes. They all jumped through several hoops to gain admission to Rangel, and that ad mission gives them a front-row seat to what may be the biggest educational issue of their generation.

Because here's what's happening: The girls of Rangel are excelling in their all-girl environment. In its first year, the school outshone the rest of Dallas ISD on the statewide TAKS test: 100 percent of eighth-graders and 97 percent of seventh-graders passed the test's reading section (the district passing rates were 72 and 67 percent). And in math, writing and social studies, the Rangel girls surpassed the district's passing rate every time, generally by a remarkable margin.

What has made the difference?

The school's supporters say the boy-free environment gives the girls confidence, attention, focus and drive they might have lost if they'd stayed in coed middle schools.

The single-sex classroom has long been the domain of private schools. All-girl or all-boy classrooms have a sort of Dead Poets Society mystique, a certain prestigious-prep-school aura that seems exclusive, maybe a bit unnecessary. But educators and analysts are starting to take another look at what happens to boys and girls in the traditional coed classroom, and many are pushing to separate the sexes in schools of all kinds.

Experts have long believed that girls suffer in coed classrooms, that they are overshadowed by boys' rambunctious behavior and that, intimidated by male confidence and dominance, they lose faith in their own abilities - especially in subjects such as math and science. And this may still be true. The girls at Rangel are all eager to talk about how much more they can accomplish without the guys around.

Molly Brewer, an eighth-grader, tries to explain what it's like. She talks to her friends from coed schools, and they all just want to talk about the boys. Molly feels like she's living in a different world.

"We're not, like, not interested in guys," she says. "It's just kind of different."

Her classmate, Yadira Perez, steps in to clarify: "Here, you don't have guys, so you pay more attention to your classes and you're more focused on what you're doing."

Bianca Williams, a ninth-grader, agrees. Guys, Bianca says, are "not as big a priority" at Rangel.

They're not around to flirt with or talk to, which - at least, among the older girls - is considered sort of unfortunate. But they're also not around to primp for or stress out about. Which, according to their principal, Vivian Taylor-Samudio, is perhaps what contributes most to the girls' success.

"I think middle school is the pivotal point in a lot of girls' educational careers," she says. "In middle school, you don't want to appear too smart, or the boys won't like you. You don't find girls raising their hands and participating in class at that point."

Not so at Rangel, Taylor-Samudio says.

"Here, the girls don't have to worry about impressing a young man," she says.

There's the attraction factor - watching boys, impressing boys, worrying about boys. But there's also the distraction factor in coed schools: Boys, at this age, can be a real pain in the classroom.

"We still have our class clowns," Molly says, even in a girls school. "But not as many."
There's much more to read in the whole piece.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, made it legal for public school systems to offer separate but equal schools or classrooms for boys and girls. And since then, at least 211 public schools in the United States have begun to offer some form of single-sex education, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

Last month,
we took a look at a story where three civil rights groups (led by the American Civil Liberties Union) shot-down a "boys only" school that would have offered inner-city Philadelphia students a traditional college prep curriculum.

Heh. I wonder why the ACLU doesn't seem to have a problem with "girls only" schools?
See our latest education-related posts right here.