Reversing three decades of federal policy, the Bush administration recently announced its intention to encourage single-sex education in American public schools. Thirty years ago, all-boys and all-girls schools were more common across the nation, but after the 1972 law, Education Amendment, Title IX, that prohibits discrimination based on gender, they all but disappeared from the public education system. Many more still exist, however, in the private sector, and research indicates that many children in private schools benefit from the experience.
President Bush has said he wants to make that benefit available to more children. But opponents claim single-sex schools are inherently unequal and should not be endorsed by the U.S. government.
At the annual school picnic at St. Anselm's Abbey, girls mingle with boys on the grassy lawn, at food tables and on the playgrounds. But on school days, the only females on campus are a handful of teachers and administrative personnel. Since 1942 when it opened, St. Anselm's Abbey School in Washington D.C. has taught only boys, ages 12 to 18. Some parents and students consider the idea of an all-boys' school outdated, but they choose it because of its excellent academic reputation.
"We were just looking for the best school. We looked at some co-ed private schools, but this place was betterm," Nick Davies said.
Seventeen-year-old Nick Davies came to St. Anselm's five years ago.
"I don't mind the fact that it's all-boys, really," he said. "You tend not to notice it any more because it's it's just class anyway and you don't have to, like, dress up especially to go to class. There's no pressure to look good or anything so that's kind of relaxing also."
Nick's class-mate Peter Kjeldgaard came to St. Anselm's three years ago from a co-ed school. "It's fun. All-guys school is fun. Especially when it's small. You are a lot tighter with your class, with the other guys around you, and it eliminates a big distraction (i.e. girls). You can have fun in the ways you wouldn't have otherwise. You don't have to watch yourself," he said.
Some girls attending same-sex schools seem to echo the boys' feelings. Lizzy Ostrye and Becca Badilla attend an all-girls school in McLean, Virginia.
Lizzy Ostrye: "It's just more like a community and we are all more connected and it's much more like family, like, at school.
Becca Badilla: I guess it's better because first of all, you don't have to worry about, like, making yourself look good for the guys and everything and like, the teachers call on you more. It's just girls and you don't have to, like, be afraid to raise your hand so you don't have to be afraid if you look smart or not."
And what difference, if any, does it make to educators? Corey Mann teaches Earth Science and Chemistry at St. Anselm's Abbey School. "I find that I don't have to compete for attention as much," he said. "When I taught in the co-ed school it was very clear to me that the attention of the students was more focused on each other. Here, it's less focused on each other and more focused on the material that we are presenting."
Mr. Mann confirms what some researchers have been saying for some time. Many parents also believe their children do better in same-sex schools. Carol Ramirez has a ninth-grade son at St. Anselm's Abbey School. She transferred him last year from a co-ed school and said he is now doing better. "Absolutely [he is doing better]," she said. "His social life has not been as robust as he would l]ike it to be, but also in the classroom, I think it's been important that he hasn't had a lot of the distractions and he really has focused more on his work."
Opponents of single-sex education said in addition to promoting gender-discrimination, these schools do not provide a healthy social interaction between girls and boys. St. Anselm's 11th-grade student Taylor Beaumont disagrees.
"Well, I guess, a lot of people think that there's problems with, I don't know: you don't become as socially developed," he said. "But I don't think that's true. There's other schools around here, but pretty much most people just know girls from wherever they live or anywhere really."
Same-sex schools often form a "brother-sister" relationship with another school. The two schools organize joint performances, dances, picnics, field trips and other events, enabling boys and girls to meet, interact and socialize on a regular basis. Lizzy Ostrye said her all-girls school in suburban Virginia has a close relationship with an all-boys school in suburban Maryland and she and her classmates have made many friends there. "We normally just meet them on Fridays. We call them or talk to them on the Internet," Ms. Ostrye said.
While many people praise same-sex education in private schools, opinions are divided as to whether it should be re-introduced to public schools.
"I think choice is good there. This is the new millennium and in this millennium it's all about choices," one person said.
"I find it, sort of, almost un-American in a way because America is a country that believes in mixing people together and getting along together and getting to know one another," another man said.
"My only fear is that I do think that it's useful to have a kind of common ground in your education, that there is a common culture that is preserved as generations come up and if you have too many varieties of schooling available, there won't be enough common basis for a culture to build on. But America has always been a place where we like variety, we want something for everybody," another said.
The law currently allows federal funds to be used for single-sex public classrooms as long as a school district makes comparable educational opportunities available for students of both sexes. That can be difficult and expensive. As a result, there are fewer than a dozen same-sex public schools in the United States. The Bush administration's current proposal would give school districts much more freedom in determining what constitutes a comparable educational opportunity, making it easier for them to create same-sex schools.