By Tim Johnson
It’s a dull, grey morning outside, the leaden midwinter sky doing little to brighten the glass and steel and concrete of the office towers and condominiums that surround St. Joseph’s College School, an all-girls’ Catholic high school in the heart of downtown Toronto. But all is bright and buzzing in Jennifer Martens’ Grade 9 science classroom. Students in crested sweaters and plaid skirts are huddled in small groups at lab stations to prepare their final year-end presentation. As I interrupt their activity to chat, I ask the obvious question: Is it a drag to be at a school where there isn’t a single solitary high school-aged boy to be found? Beyond the teacher’s earshot, the girls give me some surprising answers. “When I was in a coed school, if you didn’t play a certain sport or dress a certain way, then you weren’t popular. Here, you can be your own person,” says Holland Philpott, 14. Others offer similar responses. “When I came here, I thought it would be kind of weird because I was used to having boys around. But this school allows you to be yourself,” observes Helen Israel, 14. But don’t they feel like they’re missing out on something? “Just a lot of drama,” says Olivia Moran, 14, her two lab partners nodding in agreement.
Okay, but surely a few minutes up the road at St. Michael’s College School, a single-sex private academy known for excellence in sports, the roomful of boys I visit in Father Patrick Fulton’s Grade 10 theology class will tell me a different story. They do not. As I stand in front of straight rows of desks filled with young men clad in navy jackets and ties straight out of Dead Poets Society, student after student tells me about the camaraderie, the ability to focus, and how nice it is to be free of worries about their appearance. “I feel more comfortable. Guys act differently when there are girls around, but here you don’t have to think about it,” says Stalon Lambert, 15. The rest of the class murmurs their approval. “School is just part of the day, and after that you leave and meet your other friends. But you need your concentration most at school, so it’s good to be in a single-gender environment.”
An old concept that’s gathering new steam, single-sex classrooms are becoming increasingly common, especially in the United States, and have emerged as a hot topic for academic researchers seeking better educational solutions for today’s students. Although still relatively rare in Canada — Ontario, for example, has just 16 publicly funded schools offering this option — some feel that this is an idea whose time has come, again. A growing body of neurological research is highlighting differences in the ways boys and girls learn, even at a very young age, sparking a recent push for single-sex elementary schools. But the most common place to find single-sex classrooms continues to be in middle school/junior high and high schools. Dr. Heather Blair, a professor in the University of Alberta’s faculty of education who has studied gender and education for more than 15 years, notes that this is a key time in the lives of students. “This is a real watershed for girls, around “Who am I?’ and “Am I pretty?’ and “Am I smart?’ and “Is it cool to be smart?’ And for boys, there are few models about what it’s like to be a man, beyond the “tough guy’ image.”
And while an all-boys’ school may conjure up images of Lord of the Flies — hallways drenched in testosterone, machismo males preying upon one another, gender stereotypes carried out to their fullest extent — the reality, it seems, is quite the opposite. With the (hetero-) sexual tension removed, surrounded by only their own gender, boys are freed to work out their masculinity, take risks, participate in activities that don’t fit the male stereotype, and transition from boys to men in a unique environment. “At a boys’ school, the best footballers are commonly the best actors, singers and poets. That’s very unusual at a coed school — I would challenge you to find me any coed school, public or private, in any province, where the leading footballer is also the leading poet or actor,” says Dr. Leonard Sax, a medical doctor, Ivy-league educated psychologist, and executive director of the U.S.-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education.
Robert Marchand, principal of Sacred Heart Boys’ High School in Halifax (a private school which offers both all-boys’ and all-girls’ options), has seen this in action. Marchand, who taught in coed schools for 20 years, notes that the school’s top basketball players are also very involved in drama, art and music. “In junior and senior high, part of your social development is defining yourself, and when you have girls around, boys tend to become hyper-masculine in an effort to define themselves as not girls,” says Marchand. “Here, boys are freed from the obligation to play a narrowly defined role, and they’re free to explore all of the possibilities, so that by the time they graduate and move onto university, they have all of the choices lying before them.” Tom Levesque, a Sacred Heart parent, has already observed some changes in his son Simon, who enrolled in the school two years ago. Simon, who is in Grade 9, took part in his first school play last year. “He had never shown any interest in that before, but he did it and he loved it. I’m not sure
he would have gotten involved in theatre in a coeducational setting,” says Levesque.
At the Nellie McClung Girls’ Junior High Program, a Grade 7 to Grade 9 program within the Edmonton public school system, the goal is to help young women find their voice, says Linda Love-Walsh, principal of Avonmore School, one of three Nellie McClung sites. The girls, she has observed, feel relieved to be free of the pressures of appearance and attracting the attention of the opposite sex. And while many of the girls have boyfriends, the dating drama doesn’t take place right in the classroom or the halls. All of this is an aid to learning. “For whatever reason, girls sometimes feel reluctant to raise their hands when they’re in the presence of boys in a dual-gender classroom. The girls will say that it’s because it’s not always acceptable to be smart, or that they don’t always feel confident enough to compete,” says Love-Walsh. “By the time these young women leave us, they’ve learned how to be confident in themselves.”
Josephine Lobo, head of guidance at St. Joseph’s College School, which is publicly funded and draws students from all over the city, adds that the single-sex environment at her school provides a safe place for girls at a vulnerable age. The girls, she says, provide strong support for one another while faculty members foster a nurturing environment. “Young girls enter Grade 9 as young adults and leave in Grade 12 as confident, mature young women ready to confront the challenges waiting outside,” she says. Molly Doan, 17, a senior who will graduate from St. Joseph’s in the spring, notes that the benefits change at different stages. “In Grade 9 it’s about adjusting and getting to a certain comfort level. In Grade 12 it’s about being focused and getting your studies done.”
Removing the sexual tensions from the classroom and halls can also diminish discipline problems and the distractions they cause. At James Lyng High School in Montreal, a public institution, students are randomly assigned to all-girls’, all-boys’, and coed classrooms. Klara Bourne, an English teacher at the school, observes that students in her coed classes routinely act out to grab the attention of the opposite sex, and says that discipline problems in these classes are at least triple those of their single-sex counterparts. Betty Lou Reynolds, the head of special education at St. Joseph’s, taught at a coed school for 15 years. “A lot of fights, when they occurred, were related to “You took my girlfriend, you took my boyfriend.’ Even talking to someone else’s girlfriend or boyfriend could create a huge problem.”
Some parents fear that sending their child to a single-gender school will lead to weakened social skills with the opposite sex. However, it’s very common for students to hang out with friends of the other gender in the evening, on weekends and in the summer, and single-sex schools often organize sporting events or feature clubs that bring together boys and girls. Dr. Blair, who speaks at open-house sessions for the Nellie McClung program, says parents routinely ask if their daughter will ever be able to talk to a boy if she signs up. “I say, “Having raised teenaged girls to adulthood, I assure you it wouldn’t matter how many hours you keep them apart, they’ll figure out a way to do it,” she laughs. Jessica Willett, 16, who will graduate next year from St. Joseph’s, isn’t daunted by re-entry into a coed environment. Based on her experiences with her brother and cousins, she observes, “there’s a difference between high school and university boys. We just miss their awkward, stupid stages.”
While it can be difficult to find exhaustive, empirical studies that show conclusive academic benefits for single-sex schools, there is a mountain of case studies and individual experiences that tells a story of success. For one, single-sex schools have the distinct advantage of being able to tailor their program to a single gender.
At Nellie McClung, there’s a strong emphasis on science and math, fields in which girls have traditionally lagged behind (although recent studies show that this gender gap is now pretty much closed). The program involves opportunities for students to participate in field studies and other hands-on opportunities beyond classroom walls, including a river study in Canmore, Alta., with the University of Calgary, where the data collected by Grade 8 girls is used in university-level work. They also operate a competition called Young Women of Action, which celebrates the accomplishments of Nellie McClung girls out in the community. And they get results: girls in the program, drawn from all parts of the city and every level of socio-economic status, rank highly in regional science fairs, and one girl from the Oliver site captured the silver medal at nationals last year. Moreover, 99 percent of the girls at Avonmore read at or above grade level, and 78 percent of students ranked in either the honours or merit category in the first term of studies this year.
The same level of achievement can also be found at St. Joseph’s. Principal Luisa Cangelosi notes that approximately 35 percent of the school’s students are taking either advanced placement courses or advanced placement prep courses. Almost 100 percent of Grade 12 students in the advanced placement program consistently attend classes during the day, outside of their regular curriculum, and up to 95 percent of girls in each graduating class will advance to college or university. The school also has a strong emphasis on science and math. “We went on a science trip where we sat in a lab and answered questions, and the only people to answer from the other schools were the boys, who were more confident and outgoing. We were the only girls answering questions and being as competitive as the boys. We were getting all of the answers right, and high-fiving each other — it was a good experience,” remembers Jessica Willett.
For the boys, single-sex school advocates see an opportunity to address a real and growing problem. “There is a real literacy gender gap between boys and girls,” confirms Dr. Raymond Théberge, director general of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), an intergovernmental body that, among other things, administers national and international education-related assessments. The 2006 results of the Programme for International Student Assessment — an evaluation of science, reading and mathematics administered to 15-year-old students in 57 countries — found boys’ reading skills trailed those of girls by a sizable margin in every province across the nation. The most recent national assessment of writing skills, the 2002 report of the School Achievement Indicators Program, which evaluated 13- and 16-year-olds, found that “there were significant differences between males and females in writing achievement. Girls performed consistently better than boys at almost all levels in both age groups.” And Statistics Canada has reported that the university enrollment gap between women and men widened substantially in the 1990s, that more males drop out of high school than females, and that girls are more likely than boys to get along with teachers, finish their homework on time, and be interested in what they’re learning in class.
While he has no comment on the subject of single-sex schools, CMEC’s Dr. Théberge says that tailored learning can be a big part of the solution to the literacy gap between the genders. “Since we have a general feeling that boys and girls look at reading tasks differently, we should differentiate the way we teach boys and girls,” he says. “We have to find reading resources and activities that will engage boys in their learning.”
At Sacred Heart, Marchand, who teaches English in addition to his responsibilities as principal, says that he’s able to choose books (including The Red Badge of Courage, The Odyssey and Treasure Island) that capture boys’ imaginations. “By having a group that’s all boys, it gives you the opportunity to appeal to them directly.” He notes that, especially in earlier grades, boys tend to lag behind in their reading development, and he can more easily zero in on their stage of learning with his teaching. And, importantly, Marchand says that he’s been able to hire teachers who deliver the curriculum in a more boy-suited, kinetic style — active, loud and involving humour.
At James Lyng High School, where Klara Bourne teaches Grade 10 and 11 all-boys’, all-girls’, and coed English classes, she also observes that the single-gender atmosphere is key in her ability to tailor teaching to each gender, which she does in a variety of ways. For example, Bourne has observed that girls prefer discussion, while boys thrive on competition and keeping score, and she has adjusted her lessons accordingly. Bourne estimates that the grades in her single-sex classes are 50 percent higher than in their coed counterparts.
And back at St. Michael’s, Father Fulton says the shorter-than-average 50-minute periods at the school are geared to boys’ attention spans. In addition, he makes adjustments in his teaching for the male mindset. He moves quickly, utilizes repetition, and uses visuals. Moreover, he presents lessons in a linear style, and he integrates fast resolution and quick feedback, all of which, he says, tend to suit the way that boys learn. And he’s found that in a coed school, boys are reluctant to embrace learning and to admit that academic achievement is cool in front of the girls. That’s certainly not the case at St. Michael’s. “On our academic awards night, when that really, really geeky, smart kid who gets a 98.9 percent average receives his award, the applause in the gym is thunderous. I’ve never seen that in a coed school.”
Contributing Editor Tim Johnson had great experiences at all of the coed public schools he attended, and was therefore surprised to discover so many merits in single-sex education.
While single-sex schools have garnered a lot of fans, even their most ardent supporters admit that they’re not for everyone. CF’s publisher Carina D’Brass Cassidy’s two sons have each experienced single-gender education, with differing opinions and results. Her older son, Pierce, enjoyed and profited from his time at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ont., and graduated two years ago. However, younger son Devin, currently in Grade 10 at St. Andrew’s, has had challenges. They are considering a move to a coed school for him next year. “We really feel that Devin will perform better, socially and academically, in a coed environment. It’s just his personality — he connects and communicates well with girls.” She notes that there’s a broad range of options available (especially if private school is an option), and advises parents to consider all aspects of the prospective school and decide how well they will match your child’s strengths, style and personality. Is sports a top priority, or academics? Does your child embrace tradition and structure, or thrive in a casual environment?
Montreal teacher Klara Bourne, whose son and daughter also attended single-sex schools, and whose son transferred to a coed school before finishing, adds that the most important factor is whether or not your child is happy. “You can’t force them into a single-sex school if they hate it,” she says. “It’s more important that the child love going to school than which school he’s at.”
Criticism #1 Separating people is never a good idea
“If you are teaching people to be separate, that’s a bad idea. But we are not anti-boys. We are pro-women. I tell critics that this is a program that is not about single-gender, but more about a type of schooling program that promotes confidence and helps young women become successful, healthy contributing members of a dual-gender society — and that is when the criticism ends.”
Linda Love-Walsh, principal, Avonmore School, Nellie McClung Girls’ Junior High program, Edmonton
Criticism #2 Real life is coed, and a single-sex education won’t prepare them for it
“Of all the criticisms, this one is my favourite. School is just different from real life — it just is! Think of all the other things that are different out in the world. Do you have to be there when the bell rings? Do you have to wear a uniform? And the other criticism I face is “They need to socialize together.’ The last time I saw adolescents not socialize here is never. They see each other at lunch, on the bus — there’s no lack of socialization here.”
Allannah Murphy, community learning centre coordinator, James Lyng High School, Montreal (which offers all-boys’, all-girls’ and coed classes
Criticism #3 Single-gender schools are filled with rich kids from good homes who would do well in school no matter what
“Our girls come from every realm of socioeconomic advantage and disadvantage. Parents that choose to send their daughter to Nellie McClung, yes, they want the best for their kids, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these are all advantaged children. You run the gamut from kids that are highly motivated and academically successful to those who are not as successful, for whatever reason — lack of confidence, the inability to see themselves as good learners. And this program is designed to assist and nurture all of them.”
Criticism #4 Girls’ schools are full of gossip and cattiness, and boys’ schools are an exercise in survival of the fittest
“People typically think that girls are really catty, but when you take the boys out of the picture, there’s nothing to really argue about. Because, when you think about it, all of the arguments in elementary school were about “You’ve got my boyfriend!’ and things like that. Obviously there are going to be some disagreements, but if you don’t want to hang out with someone, there are so many other people here.”
Holland Philpott, Grade 9, St. Joseph’s College School
“We’re all brothers here, we’re all family, we’re all part of one community.”
Elliot Mayhew, Grade 10, St. Michael’s College School
“I’m on the football team, but I’m going to be completely honest — I suck. But everyone’s really encouraging. At a coed school, you try and impress the girls. But here you’re just playing for your team and yourself.”
Adrian Marsili, Grade 10