In October 2006, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration had given public school districts “broad new latitude to expand the number of single-sex classes, and even schools.” Schools are responding to the new flexibility, which represents a remarkable change from past policy. “You’re going to see a proliferation” of single-sex schools, Paul Vallas, who is now in charge of the New Orleans Recovery School District, told the Times.
Let’s hope so, because both boys and girls stand to benefit, especially in urban areas. Miriam Lewis Raccah, executive director of the recently founded Girls Preparatory Charter School of New York, says that the school’s philosophy is “to offer a rigorous, college-preparatory education and to offer a choice” to parents. Located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Girls Prep has a heavily minority population, and many of its students qualify for free lunches. Starting with just kindergarten and first grade, the school, now in its third year, has added second-grade and third-grade instruction as well. Its charter ultimately envisions a K–5 school.
In a coed setting, Raccah says, “boys tend to get more attention—because their personalities are bigger. There are a lot of girls who seem to be learning but may not be, and they kind of slide through the cracks.” Raccah likes the way that girls-only education can build confidence: “At a girls’ school, the girls will be into everything—so they’re the goalie, they’re the brains, they’re the artist, they’re the math whiz.” Citing survey data from the Goodman Research Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she says that recent alumnae of girls-only schools have given overwhelmingly positive assessments of their experiences, especially as regards academic preparedness, individual attention, and self-confidence.
Girls Prep has four core values: scholarship, merit, responsibility, and sisterhood (which encompasses mutual respect and philanthropy). Parents of students must sign a contract pledging that they will stay involved. The school hires teachers with a minimum of three years’ experience, but it also runs a fellowship program that shapes college graduates into effective teachers, who can then apply for positions without the experience requirement.
Early results seem promising. A recent update sent to the school community announced the scores of some TerraNova achievement tests: “We have now had two years to work with our first- and second-graders, and are happy to report that testing in May showed that on average 83 percent of them are at or above grade level in reading, and 79 percent in math.”
Raccah isn’t planning to ignore the other half of Gotham’s student population. One can easily make the case that boys—especially those in low-income communities—are at greater risk than their female counterparts are. “For boys of color, there are so many barriers to success,” she says. Indeed, boys outnumber girls when it comes to emotional disturbances, learning disabilities, attention disorders, and teen deaths. In college, men are greatly outnumbered by women—and black women far outpace black men in obtaining college degrees.
If all goes according to Raccah’s plan, the Boys Preparatory Charter School of New York will open in fall 2009. The school’s mission would be the same as for Girls Prep, but, she says, “the difference becomes the delivery.” Boys do not learn in the same fashion as girls and require different approaches. Constant engagement is essential, as boys have trouble sitting still in school, don’t get enough recess time, and endure too much group work (which girls more often enjoy). An ideal boys’ school offers structure, a fact-based curriculum, ample amounts of exercise, competition, generous recognition for achievement, and character-building. Other aspects of Girls Prep, like a system of core values and a fellows program, could be easily adapted to a boys’ environment.
If Raccah can get Boys Prep approved and secure a suitable space (no easy task), we may soon see a new boys’ charter school in Manhattan. Low-income boys would certainly benefit from the type of approach that Raccah is developing—both in New York and nationwide.