AT VILLA VICTORIA Academy in New Jersey, girls fill every leadership position and captain every sports team. The student council president is female, as is the head of the school's math team and the graduating class valedictorian. Girls have every leading part in the school's yearly theatrical production—both male and female.
“No one can sit back and let the boys take all the leadership positions,” said senior Karen Burke, a national merit semi-finalist. Villa Victoria admits only girls.
For more than 50 years, single-sex schools were often dismissed as old-fashioned and discriminatory. They were branded as mere finishing schools or, at the other extreme, as bastions of militant feminism. But while the U.S. Supreme Court is forcing formerly all-male military institutes and elite preparatory schools to open up their portals for women too, educators and lawmakers are telling girls schools it's OK to bar the door.
In the last several years, convincing evidence has shown that in the realm of single-sex education, at least, separate can be equal. A bill pending in Congress would provide $300 million to up to 100 school districts to set up single-gender public schools.
Research data, much of it drawn from Catholic schools, has shown single-sex schools are often more effective than their coed counterparts. Schooled apart from boys, young women achieve higher test scores, particularly in math and science, and accomplish more in later life. Educators also find that the girls show more self-confidence and self-esteem, said Cornelius Riordan, a sociology professor at Providence College, in Providence, R.I., who has conducted many of the studies. “American schools are failing at fairness,” Riordan said. “But research shows that here (single-sex schools) is something that works.”
The faculty at Villa Victoria and other Catholic girls's chools say that is something their religious orders have known instinctively for many years. Apparently, more parents are taking the findings to heart. “the parents are seeing these statistics. They see the benefit for their daughters,” said White. “the world is so competitive; they want them to put their best foot forward.”
For the coming school year, Villa Victoria expects to accept about 25 percent more students than last year. And at the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Md., there has been a 43 percent increase in student enrollment in the last three years. Mary Kousch, the school's admission's director, attributes that to a larger school-age population, the fact that public schools aren't considered safe by parents, and the favorable publicity about girls’ schools. “girls in a classroom with (only) girls feel freer to express themselves,” said Kousch. “The atmosphere is freer of distractions all the way around.” Added Mary Lavery, vice principal of Villa Victoria: “We are not only equal opportunity, we are every opportunity.”
Research shows that at about the time of puberty, girls’ test scores take a nosedive and their self-esteem hits the floor. Many stop participating in class or only speak up if they expect to be 100 percent right. According to studies, teenage girls are easily intimidated by teenage boys and cowed into silence by fear of ridicule. Unconsciously, teachers play right into boys’ natural competitiveness, calling on them more than on girls and rewarding classroom outbursts with attention.
Girls learn differently, said Lavery. At all-girls’ schools, teachers emphasize cooperative learning and discussion rather than answering a rapid-fire stream of questions. Also, she said, no one who attends a girls’ school can graduate with the belief that girls don't do chemistry.
“I think it is the freedom to not be worried (in girls-only classes) about what boys think of them,” said Sister Mary Beth Read, principal of Mount St. Ursula, the oldest all-girls academy in New York State. “Any one of us who has taught boys and girls together knows that boys just somehow tend to draw the teacher's attention more,” said Sister Read. “in a coed setting, its the very strong girls who do tend to come out. The others just shrink and let the boys take the lead. If they like a boy, they aren't as likely to disagree with his position.”
Despite the many studies that turn up positive statistics on them, Providence College Professor Riordan reports that there is still plenty of resistance to single-sex schools. Political decision-makers are worried that support for single-sex education will be labeled politically incorrect. Even most feminists are uncomfortable with it, although the American Association of University Women sponsored the first study, in 1991. “There is a big political block that does not embrace the research or even read it,” Riordan said. “it's a fact that people who do call a lot of shots are against them.”
Many argue that girls who attend girls-only schools tend to be more serious-minded to begin with and less distractible than those at coed schools. If they achieve more, the reasoning goes, it is attributable more to the personal qualities of a student than to the makeup of the schoolroom. But Dr. George Corwell, director of education for the New Jersey Catholic Conference, argues that the much smaller class size at most of the girls schools also is a big factor in the higher test scores.
And, he added, if teachers call on boys more than girls, that is because boys pay less attention in class and tend not to do as well. Lessons get through to girls much faster, he said. “instead of being biased against girls, teachers are biased for girls,” said Corwell. “Teachers play to the weakest link, which are the boys.”
A real problem, said Riordan, is that many people who have attended single-gender schools often believe that they 've missed something. Many schools take great pains to encourage students to take part in after-school coed activities and arrange get-togethers with nearby boys’ schools. Mount St. Ursula's ecology club recently began a recycling drive among several nearby Catholic schools and then sponsored a conference on the subject. Despite such efforts, however, many believe that attending school with only girls or boys held back their social life. It has also been shown that many will develop negative stereotypes about the opposite sex.
At Villa Victoria, you're apt to be more popular when you're smart and do well in school. Peer pressure, in fact, works in a positive way; the most popular students belong to the math club, which just took first place in an eight state region. “I's the club to be in,” said team leader Karen Burke, who wants to study physics in college.
Without boys around, the students are also less preoccupied with how they look. Likewise, they get all the attention from teachers because there aren't any boys around. The girls at Villa Victoria dismiss concerns that spending much of the day without the company of the opposite sex will put them at a disadvantage later in life. High school, they say, truly isn't an accurate model of the wider world.
“It's not like I'm missing out on life,” said junior Lauren Ketterer. “We just don't need them (boys) in the classroom.”
At Villa Victoria, they say, no one will make fun of or snear at what the girls say.
Lisa Pevtzow is based in New York.