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The Same-Sex Advantage

Are single-gender schools right for your child?



Benefits of single-gender schools.

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With so many educational options --—  public, private, charter, religious,single-gender — choosing the best school for your child can be a challenge. During the 2013-14 school year, there were more than 1,300 all-girls or all-boys private U.S. schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Many parents believe  a single-gender education provides a positive learning and growing experience for their children, with fewer distractions.

Benefits of single-gender education

Taking boys out of the classroom offers many benefits to girls, says Megan Murphy, executive director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. She notes that girls’ school graduates are six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science and technology compared to girls who graduate from co-ed schools.

At a girls’ school, “every student on the science Olympiad team, robotics team or who is a mathlete, is a girl,” she says. “The younger girls see these peer role models who are passionate about pursuing science and say, ‘I can do that too.’”

The Walker children, boys Stephen, 13, William, 11 and Andrew, 8, all attend The Haverford School, a private all-boys school. “We want to provide an environment where our kids flourish and the single-gender provides an opportunity where the boys are less distracted and are able to hunker down and focus,” says mom Dorothy Walker, from Bryn Mawr.

While the biggest drawback to single-gender education may be lack of experience learning about and interacting with the opposite sex, the Walker boys mingle with girls at extra-curricular activities and during some shared programs. One favorite is pairing with girls for robotics. But their mother doesn’t feel they are missing out by spending most of the school day apart.

“The value system is important to the education here. The boys know how to respect people whether you are a boy or a girl,” she says. “I see them treating everybody the same.” 

More focused learning

“The boys will tell you they are more capable of focusing; the teachers will tell you that they can teach specific subject matter that interests boys to keep their attention; and I will tell you from a parent perspective there’s a huge difference with regard to how boys and girls engage in learning,” says Jay Greytok, head of the Haverford Middle School.

“Research demonstrates that girls who attend single-gender high schools report stronger academic achievement in college, higher enrollment in STEM majors, greater confidence with public speaking, and more extracurricular and political engagement,” says Jacqueline Coccia, principal of the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, a grade 6-12 school for girls in Villanova, PA.

At Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, boys and girls learn together in elementary school, but from 6th through 12th grades, the school only teaches girls. “Middle school is when girls become distracted and everything else begins to take over in terms of self-esteem and what boys think,” says Lin Nordmeyer, Ursuline Academy marketing/communications manager. “Research shows that in an all-girl environment, they’re not embarrassed about being smart. And the sisterhood element is very strong.”

Both schools partner with single-gender schools of the opposite sex for arts programs, plays, field trips and other activities, and “social media has helped the guys who would like more involvement with young women,” Greytok says.

When faced with sports competition like the swim team, where girls and boys must both compete, Haverford partners with girls from the Baldwin School. But for the most part, single-gender sports are part of the growth experience. “Sports helps girls get their voice and find their way,” points out Nordmeyer.

Is it right for your child?

“Single-sex education isn’t right for every child and should be handled on a case by case basis,” says Hollis Evans, psychiatric social worker and therapist at Lourdes Medical Center in Willingboro. “The point is to benefit the child’s academic development and I don’t think there’s a significant cost to their social interpersonal growth.”

Parents are experts at understanding their own children intuitively, he says, and they should talk to their children about their options. Outline for them what the advantages and disadvantages might be. “It’s an ongoing evaluation with your child,” says Evans. “Maybe in their younger years the kids might like it but as they get older they might want to try a co-ed high school.”

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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