Where the Boys Aren't: Single Sex Schools Are Making a Comeback


Girls’ schools were the first to make a comeback, after decades of disparagement. Now boys’ schools are attracting new interest from parents and educators.

Girls' schools were the first to make a comeback, after decades of disparagement. Now boys' schools are attracting new interest from parents and educators.

Single-sex education has been accused of sticking to outdated ways. Maryland mother Carolyn O'Keefe was wary of choosing single-sex education for her daughter Grace.

O'Keefe feared that a girls-only education would make Grace "too girl-focused," diminishing her ability to interact with boys.

But O'Keefe began to reconsider when Grace's teachers at the girl's coeducational school all described her as "sweet." Grace, then five, was "very boisterous at home," her mother said. "Not that she's not sweet, but it seemed as if something was holding her back in terms of expressing herself" at school.

Grace told her mother that some boys at the school got praise for not misbehaving, while girls — who caused fewer problems — didn't get any praise for behaving. "I also would hear about recess," O'Keefe recalled, where boys chased girls. That's "cute," she said, "but I wondered whether it flowed back into the classroom."

So the family took Grace to visit Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. There, O'Keefe said, the teacher focused on "pulling out" quiet kids rather than "calming down" active ones. Grace loved the visit, and when her mother asked why, the girl replied, "Because it's all girls."

Now that Grace attends Bryn Mawr, O'Keefe said, "The teachers say she participates, her hand shoots up all the time. She's great in math, and I was always curious why the previous school never noticed. They immediately noticed it in the new school."

And "it hasn't diminished her social comfort with boys at all," O'Keefe added. Although she said that more competitive or outspoken girls would thrive in coed schools, for her daughter, "there have been no drawbacks" to single-sex education.

Partly as a result of her daughter's experience, O'Keefe recently became a publicist for the National Coalition of Girls' Schools.


O'Keefe's story is a common one. Meg Moulton, an executive director of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, said, "In the late '80s there was a real question whether some girls' schools would survive. Now enrollments are up 30%, and three times as many of our member schools are at capacity enrollment than 10 years ago."

Moulton said research had found that "girls tend to be more verbal. Girls are less likely to raise their hands and shout out; boys are much more energetic participants." She said that teachers in mixed-sex schools can find it "quite difficult to respond to two different types of behavior." She also noted wryly that "the boy-girl interaction" can draw children's focus away from the blackboard.

New York City's public girls' high school, the Young Women's Leadership High School, just graduated its first class. All 32 seniors received college acceptances. Ninety percent will be the first person in their families to attend college.

Maureen Grogan, executive director of the foundation that directs the school, said that girls reported feeling "freer to speak up in class. They're not made fun of by boys," she added. One college-bound girl told the New York Times that boys at her old school had called her "retard" and "illiterate."

Meanwhile, some scholars claim that mixed-sex education bypasses boys' needs, too. Christina Hoff Sommers' 2000 book, The War Against Boys, gained widespread attention for its claim that teachers punished boys for "misbehaving" when they were simply energetic.

And Sommers pointed out that U.S. Department of Education statistics showed that girls get higher grades than boys and participate more in the Advanced Placement program. Meanwhile, boys get suspended, drop out, and are placed in special education more often than girls.

Can boys do better in single-sex environments? Anthony Sgro, spokesman for the all-boys Woodberry Forest (Va.) School, said, "We try to teach in ways where there's a lot more hands-on learning. There's not as much lecturing — boys don't sit for an hour and listen to a lecture as easily as girls might."


Boys' schools aren't the solution, countered Bernice Sandler, senior scholar at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C.

"The boys become more rowdy and more sexist" in an all-boys setting, she said.

Sandler agreed that at coed schools, "Girls get praised a lot for their appearance and for neatness. Boys get praised for creativity and being smart."

She added, "One of the newly emerging hot issues — in middle school it's the worst, and in high schools it's very bad — is student-to-student harassment." Girls face increased "sexual bullying," she said.

"Single-sex schools avoid these problems, but it doesn't do anything for the rest of the kids," Sandler said.

Moreover, she said, in boys' schools the students "learn to be sexist. In an all-male school, very often there are [comments] like, 'You're acting like a girl.' The teachers will say that. There probably is more bullying in all-male institutions."

But teachers in single-sex schools say they've found a solution to those problems. School Sister of Notre Dame Frances Butler, who taught in mixed-sex schools for 30 years before becoming principal of the all-girls Mother Caroline Academy eight years ago, said her students, mostly "inner-city girls who can't afford other options," found a "safe environment" in her school. "In some of the mixed-sex schools I've been in, there was a lot of sexual harassment that wasn't always addressed by the administration," she said.

And Woodberry Forest School's Sgro added that boys' schools also give boys "the opportunity to explore different sides of their lives, such as theater or art or a spiritual life, that they wouldn't necessarily even look at in a coed environment where they're playing to another gender."

"We offer a poetry class for juniors," he noted. "The boys share their poetry, read the poetry aloud, it's very serious. The boys critique it. That's something you would rarely see in a coed classroom."


Eve Tushnet. "Where the Boys Aren't: Single Sex Schools Are Making a Comeback." National Catholic Register. (July, 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Eve Tushnet is a Register staff writer.

Copyright © 2001 National Catholic Register

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