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Single-sex Schools and Minority Achievement: The Young Women’s Leadership School Brings Girl Power to Bronx Students
By ELISABETH HULETTE


Chaos settled into order quickly at the start of Tracy Smith’s ninth-grade “Living Environment” class at the Young Women’s Leadership School, a public all-girls school in Castle Hill in the Bronx.

In a blur of uniform white tights and grey pleated skirts, about 20 14-year-old girls scrambled to grab instructions for a genetics lab that March morning. The girls landed in their seats just as Smith launched into an explanation of complicated genetic principles.

The course material is advanced for students at this age, Smith said. She never would have been able to get through such a rigorous curriculum at the large, traditional school where she last taught, Adlai Stevenson High School in Hunts Point.

Pointing to a bulleted list of eight biology topics the class will cover, she said that at Stevenson, “I’d be lucky if I could pull off two of these. But I can do it here because of their level of seriousness.”

The school is the third in the city to be modeled after the much-lauded Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem. More all-girls schools are in the planning stages. The first of the new incarnation of all-girls schools opened in 1996 and placed 100 percent of its pioneer graduates in colleges. Advocates of single-sex schooling attribute the school’s success to its single-sex environment.

But just one glance at Smith’s class shows they have something in common besides their gender, their uniform and their eagerness to learn. Every girl in the room is either black or Hispanic.

Sixty-five percent of the school’s 250 students are black and 30 percent are Hispanic. These demographics are constant reminders of one of the school’s goals: to close the minority achievement gap through single-sex education.

“I think [closing the gap] was part of the original design for the schools,” said Arnette Crocker, the school’s principal. “That’s important for us. The majority of our students are black and Latina.”

The city’s new all-boys public schools—there are three, all opened within the past three years—are more direct about targeting minority achievement, but the city’s four Young Women’s Leadership Schools are doing it too. And at the same time, the schools are targeting education issues particular to girls, like adolescent girls’ reluctance to speak up in class and their lagging achievement in math and science.

“When I was younger, I was so afraid to raise my hand, for fear of being called a know-it-all,” said Sydelcis Mendez, 14, a student in Smith’s class. When she began attending the Young Women’s Leadership School, “my personality changed a lot. Before, I was afraid to be myself.”

Sydelcis has been a student at the school for three years, since it first opened in 2004. She lives with her mother and grandmother. Her parents are divorced, and her father lives in the Dominican Republic.

She describes her home in Parkchester in the South Bronx as “sometimes chaotic.” The buildings near her are “less problematic than the projects, but there are a few drug dealings and bad situations. Sometimes you see drunk people or somebody getting violent,” she said.

Her experiences reflect the population of the neighborhood school. Its students hail from the nearly all-black and Hispanic South Bronx, said Polly Lagana, a field coordinator for the Young Women’s Leadership Foundation, which raises money for the schools. Seventy-seven percent of the students live under the poverty line. If they were not in this school, many would be considered at-risk.

“These girls are facing obstacles in their home lives,” Lagana said. “Many are in single-parent homes, in poverty, the first in their families to plan to go to college. It makes it harder than in other schools.”

The Young Women’s Leadership School offers these girls many of the same resources that students in elite private schools expect: extensive after-school programming, small classes, individual attention from teachers, career panels, college counseling. The girls get lessons in nutrition and self-esteem awareness and have taken trips to visit Harvard, Yale and MIT. Each one is fully expected to graduate on time and attend a four-year college, and only students who say they want to go to college are selected for admission.

Sydelcis is in the school’s Girl Scouts chapter, which meets after school. She has participated in dance and drama workshops and in PowerPlay, which teaches the girls a different sport each week; they’ve played football, basketball, soccer, tennis. She’s even gone on field trips sponsored by the Young Women’s Leadership School, camping and to parts of the city she’d never seen before.

Before coming to the Young Women’s Leadership School, Sydelcis attended the Central Park East School in East Harlem, a co-ed school where she said it was difficult to concentrate in class.

“There were a lot of distractions, because some of the students didn’t view education as an importance,” she said. “They didn’t see how their behavior affected the class.” It was usually the boys who misbehaved, and “the girls would go along laughing.”

The Young Women’s Leadership School is different, she said, and the best part about it is the environment the school creates for its girls, the way it feels like a family: “The girls, the teachers, the fact that you can have this comfort, you can have a relationship in the school, you’re familiar with people and you’re able to be yourself as well,” Sydelcis said.

Single-sex schools were common, if not numerous, in America through the 1960s. But Title IX added concerns about segregation by sex to the impact of Brown vs. Board of Education, and educators responded by either shutting down single-sex schools or making them co-ed. Most presumed single-sex schooling was illegal.

But in 1996, Ann Tisch, a journalist for NBC and a member of New York’s prominent Tisch family, opened the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem. Since then, the Bush administration has released new regulations more clearly permitting, even advocating, single-sex education; the most recent, released in October 2006, removed most doubt that public single-sex schooling was legal.

The National Organization for Women and the New York Civil Liberties Union brought a civil liberties case against the East Harlem school when it first opened, on grounds that single-sex education is a form of segregation. But when the organizations couldn’t find a plaintiff the case was dropped. The school still hasn’t been contested in court, but the groups continue to object to single-sex schools.

“We believe that women have to be raised in co-ed situations to deal with society as a whole when we get older, if you want to raise men and women in a world with equality,” said Marshall Papis, president of the New York state chapter of NOW.

Emily Martin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, said the ACLU particularly objects when some advocates—notably Michael Gurian, author of “Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents”—argue that single-sex schooling is necessary because of biological and psychological differences between boys and girls.

“These ideas are incredibly damaging,” Martin said, “and the fact that we’re structuring education on those ideas is something to be concerned about. The science just doesn’t support this experiment with students.” She said that although opposition to single-sex education has lagged in recent years, the rapid replication of single-sex schools has caught her attention and that of other organizations, and they’re gearing up for another fight.

Rosemary Salomone, a law professor at St. John’s University who helped found the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem and drafted the 2006 regulations on Title IX for the Bush administration, said most opposition to single-sex education is “extremely ideological.” She stresses that the new all-girls schools intend to empower girls by creating a positive environment. On one visit to the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem, she looked in a classroom and saw a Barbie doll hanging by its neck.

“I thought that said it all,” Salomone said.

Empowerment is everywhere at the Bronx Young Women’s Leadership School. As Lagana said, “You can be who you want to be, you can do what you want to do, that’s kind of the theme that runs through the school.” The girls are taught to ask questions, hunt for answers and tell a teacher when they’re having trouble.

Proponents of all-girls schools point to research that shows that girls clam up in math and science when they hit adolescence, shying away from participation and letting boys run their classes. Removing boys from the classroom, they say, gives girls the comfort zone they need to excel in “boys’ subjects.”

“When they’re outdoing the boys, they kind of wade back,” said Arnette Crocker, principal of the Bronx Young Women’s Leadership School, “but in a single-sex environment, they speak up as much as they want.”

Jessica LaDuke, 14, is an eighth-grader and in her second year at the school. She said she has particularly learned leadership and organization skills there, and the all-girls environment has made her more confident.

“Every time I do something well, they’ll give me praise and tell me ‘That’s a good job, Jessica,’” she said. “That makes me feel that I’m smart and I’m special and I can do anything.”

Jessica also lives in Parkchester, with her mother, grandmother, aunt and cousins. Her father is in the military, and Jessica has lived in Texas, Oregon, South Carolina and Maryland with him. Two years ago, she made the decision to move in with her mom in New York, where she enrolled in the Bronx Young Women’s Leadership School.

Jessica wants to be a fashion designer and attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, and she is leaving the Young Women’s Leadership School at the end of this year. In the fall, she will start classes at the Fashion Industries High School in midtown Manhattan. She says the Young Women’s Leadership School made her believe she could do it.

“It’s where you can be comfortable,” she said, “because you have girls around you who understand you.”