Philly school rekindles same-sex education debate

September 4, 2008 10:51:15 AM PDT
Calling all ninth-grade boys! Raise your hand if this school sounds like fun: wearing jackets and ties every day, staying until 5 p.m., learning Latin and - to top it all off - no girls. Who's in?

Turns out, about 270 boys. And 100 more are on a waiting list.

Boys' Latin of Philadelphia, one of the city's newer charter schools, began its second year on Wednesday, aiming to be an educational beacon in the financially and academically troubled district. But because it is a single-sex public school - one of four in the city - Boys' Latin faced huge opposition and almost didn't exist.

Critics contend it's unfair for taxpayers to fund a prep school curriculum for boys only. Supporters say Boys' Latin is desperately needed in a city where 45 percent of students drop out and male academic achievement badly lags that of females.

"Obviously something had to be done differently to engage these young men and prepare them for graduation, and for success beyond high school graduation," said David Hardy, Boys' Latin co-founder and acting principal.

The Women's Law Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania had opposed Hardy's charter application based on its exclusion of girls. It was initially rejected by Philadelphia school officials in January 2006, but was approved five months later after then-district CEO Paul Vallas called the gender achievement gap "a crisis." Boys' Latin opened in fall 2007.

New rules implemented by the U.S. Education Department in 2006 allow same-sex education whenever schools think it will expand the diversity of courses, improve students' achievement or meet their individual needs.

But ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper said those regulations conflict with the Constitution and Title IX, a federal law banning sex discrimination in education.

There are nonexclusionary ways to improve education, such as decreasing class sizes, she noted.

"There is no justification for offering kids different opportunities based on their gender," said Roper.

The 167,000-student Philadelphia district, which is under state supervision for poor performance, has tried to improve by establishing charter schools, hiring private companies and universities to manage schools, and offering single-sex education.

Results have been mixed. Three months ago, the district took six schools away from private and university managers for failure to improve sufficiently, including all-boys FitzSimons High School, which had been run by Victory Schools.

Four percent of FitzSimons' 11th graders were proficient or higher in math, and 10 percent were proficient or higher in reading on last year's state standardized tests. FitzSimons was also labeled a "persistently dangerous" school by the state this year.

The district did renew Victory's contract for all-girls Rhodes High School. In reading, 14.7 percent of juniors were proficient or higher, 3 percent proficient or higher in math.

A district spokeswoman declined to comment and said new district CEO Arlene Ackerman was not available.

There are at least 442 public schools in the U.S. with single-sex educational opportunities, according to the Exton-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Most of those are coed schools offering single-sex classrooms.

Asking if single-sex education is good is like asking if coed education is good, said Leonard Sax, the association's executive director.

"It's a very diffuse and not very meaningful question," Sax said. "There are different rationales for single-sex education and different track records."

Juniors at the city's public High School for Girls, which has been single-sex since its founding in 1848, scored 79.3 percent proficient or higher in math and 85.3 percent proficient or better in reading. Hardy noted that no one has suggested making that school coed.

Peter Kuriloff, research director at the Center for the Study of Boys' and Girls' Lives at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks single-sex classrooms are worth trying in some cases if paired with a strong curriculum.

"It is not a panacea," said Kuriloff. "Just putting boys in a boys school and girls in a girls school is not going to do anything."

Richard Cherry Sr. said he sent his son, Richard Jr., to Boys' Latin because of the smaller class sizes and personal attention. He feared his son would get "lost in the system" at district high schools that he described as chaotic and sometimes violent.

Omar Ortiz, 14, a freshman at Boys' Latin, said he wasn't sure about the no-girls part at first. But then he realized he'd be too shy to read a report aloud in his old coed public school.

"I don't have to be shy here because it's all guys," Ortiz said.

His mother, Lydia Hernandez Velez, 57, said she has no qualms sending her son to the school - even though it was not an option for her daughter.

"They're not the same," Velez said. "Their needs are different at different times of their lives."

Boys' Latin, which opened in trailers with only ninth-graders, now teaches freshmen and sophomores in a renovated former Catholic school. It will add a grade each year until it has grades nine through 12.

Hardy, 57, said boys need a strict academic focus to prevent complaining about missing girls - and Latin is it. Unlike the famous Boston Latin School, which requires an entrance exam, Hardy's school is first come, first served. But don't be fooled by the easy admission, he said.

"It's not for everybody," Hardy said. "We make that real clear."

---

On the Net:

Boys' Latin: http://www.boyslatin.org
Philadelphia school district: http://www.philsch.k12.pa.us

Click here to get the latest Philadelphia news and headlines from across the Delaware and Lehigh valleys.


Load Comments