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Experts Debate Merits of Same-Sex Education for Girls

Do students learn better when they’re placed with classmates of the same sex?

Educators at an all-girl school in Washington believe they do but others say there is no real evidence to support that claim. They say there other, more critical, factors that make a school effective.

Anyreah Clavijo likes school and hopes to be a fashion designer when she grows up. The 10-year-old attended kindergarten in a co-ed classroom, but for the past five years, she’s been at Excel Academy, the first all-girl independently-run, taxpayer-supported school in Washington, D.C.

Anyreah says she prefers being in an all-girl school.

“They make me feel like I’m loved and that I’m the smartest person in the world…boys are rough and they like to do other stuff than girls," she said.

Excel Academy, which opened its doors in 2008, offers a free, academically rigorous program to a mostly low-income community and serves more than 600 girls, from preschool through grade five. Students at the all-girl Excel Academy in Washington, D.C. (J. Taboh/VOA)

Students at the all-girl Excel Academy in Washington, D.C. (J. Taboh/VOA)

Kaye Savage, Excel Academy’s founder and chief executive officer, says that in order to break the inter-generational pattern of poverty, it’s important to start with girls and to start with them at a very young age.

“Often times in co-educational settings teachers teach to the boys,” she said. “They are a little bit louder and much more active than the girls and girls end up becoming second-class citizens in their own classrooms and in their own schools.”

But Galen Sherwin, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, says that the data really isn’t there to support any claims about advantages for single-sex education.

“Similarities between boys and girls are much greater and more relevant than any differences,” she said. “Certainly any differences that exist are not relevant from an educational standpoint.”

But regardless of gender, a key factor for educational success is early development, says Elaine Weiss, an education expert at the Economic Policy Institute.

“Everything that happens in those early lives, from how stressed or non-stressed their mother was during pregnancy, how nourished she was, how many books there were in the home, how high quality their childcare was, whether they had access to a quality pre-kindergarten program; all of those things prepare them more or less for kindergarten,” she said.

And while Savage believes Excel Academy's gender-segregated classrooms make a difference, Weiss says other factors at the school have a bigger impact, especially for girls who would otherwise not have such opportunities.

“They start for example in pre-school, so they’re addressing some of that early gap before kids get to kindergarten,” she said. “They keep their classes relatively small, so that teachers can have a one-on-one conversation and interaction with students. They have enriching after-school opportunities."

In addition to smaller classes and at least two teachers per class in the lower grades, the school also provides the students with three nutritious meals a day.

Savage has high expectations for her students, and girls in general.

“As you begin to look across the array of senior executive leadership roles in mega corporations, you do not see a lot of women,” she said. “We would like to begin to shift the dynamics.”

Anyreah Clavijo is not sure if she will continue her education in an all-girl program, but for now she says, she is happy where she is.

“I think I feel more confident in what I’m saying and what I do around my friends… and around my teachers,” she said.

And that is exactly what educators at Excel Academy are striving for.

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