No Girls Allowed: The Merits and Flaws of an All-Boys Public School

Washington, D.C., is establishing a campus targeted at the kids who struggle most: black and Latino males. But whether the plan will prove effective—and lawful—is unclear.

When Washington, D.C.’s school district announced earlier this year that it was launching an initiative to empower males of color, the press conference was filled with successful boys and young men whose stories exemplified the results that the district hopes to achieve for this student population—one that’s widely known to struggle academically.

A Latino teen spoke about becoming bilingual, reciting an impressive list of extracurriculars; another student proudly wore a University of Connecticut sweatshirt, reflecting his higher-education ambitions. Meanwhile, Kaya Henderson, the chancellor for the district’s schools, recounted the story of one recent D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) graduate who was accepted to five Ivy League colleges. (He chose Harvard.)

Rather than reiterate a stereotypical narrative about low academic achievement among minority male students, the upbeat press conference focused on the strengths and potential within this cohort. The Empowering Males of Color Initiative, as it’s being called, is slated to devote $20 million, 500 volunteers, and a boys-only college-preparatory high school to creating more of these success stories.

But whether the plan will amount to an effective—and fair—solution is up in the air.

Based on the numbers, a targeted effort to increase academic achievement for boys of color seems warranted: 43 percent of D.C.’s public-school students are black and Latino males, and the high-school graduation rate for boys is 49 percent, compared to 66 percent for girls. (Nationally, the graduation rate is 78 percent for boys and 85 percent for girls.)

To help it set up the proposed boy’s school, D.C. is turning to Chicago’s Urban Prep Academies—a well-known charter-school network for boys that touts its track record of sending 100 percent of its graduates to college. When it opened roughly a decade ago, the inaugural Urban Prep campus was the nation’s first all-boys charter high school; today, the network includes two additional Chicago locations. Aside from its focus on college prep and single-sex education, Urban Prep uses a curriculum that is, according to its website, "culturally relevant" to the experiences of its student body. "Everybody in the country wants Urban Prep to open an academy in their city," said Henderson, who, it’s worth noting, attended Georgetown with Tim King, the network’s founder.

How exactly the new all-boys institution will fit into D.C.’s public-school system is still largely open to question. Although the school will operate under the DCPS umbrella, Henderson promised Urban Prep that it will have flexibility in developing the new program. (Unlike the Urban Prep campuses, the new all-boys school in D.C. will be a regular public school; charter schools in D.C. are governed separately.)

Still, Robert Simmons, the district’s Chief of Innovation and Research, emphasized in an interview that the new campus—which will be located east of the Anacostia river, in D.C.’s lowest-income neighborhoods—won’t stray far from the way regular public schools in the district are run. According to Simmons, its expectations will be similar to those applied at the six other selective high schools in the district. And despite the "nuances" in Urban Prep’s model, he said, the new campus will be different from other D.C. public schools only in its college-prep curriculum. Simmons, however, declined to elaborate on what the final product will look like, noting that Urban Prep is spearheading the design and has yet to publicize details on the plan.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear at this point how the application process will work. Speakers at the nearly hour-long press conference highlighted efforts to exclusively target minority students, but by law public institutions can’t enroll kids based on their race or ethnicity—and Simmons was quick to point out that "any boy can apply."

How the all-boys model will pan out is also uncertain. Single-gender public schools are rare, and most exist within a charter-school framework, as Urban Prep does in Chicago. In the regular public-school realm, some jurisdictions have toyed with the idea of creating single-gender classrooms or piloting single-sex schools on an experimental basis.

But proposing a regular public school for boys without a corresponding option for girls is highly unusual in the U.S. and risks violating Title IX, the law that requires gender equity at public education institutions.

The American Civil Liberties Union has already written a letter to D.C. officials asking for further information about the Urban Prep network and how Washington’s public-school system plans to adhere to Title IX in its initiative. DCPS, however, has not responded to the letter—and as of now it doesn’t plan to. If the district does refuse to voluntarily provide the requested information, the ACLU is prepared to use the available legal routes and submit a Freedom of Information request. "We really want these answers before we say, 'you can’t do this,'" Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, the executive director of the the ACLU’s D.C. chapter, recently told me. "If it’s done in a certain way, it may not violate Title IX."

Simmons reasoned that D.C. has "equivalent academic options for girls" at the district’s selective coed high schools, which typically require students to take a test for admission and are tailored around specific academic interests. But he declined to elaborate on how, exactly, those options will compensate for the all-boys school and ensure the district avoids violating equal-treatment laws. Simmons deferred to the D.C. Attorney General, Karl Racine, who is currently reviewing the plan and will soon release an opinion on its legality.

But the legality of the proposal is not the only issue at hand. Little consensus exists among researchers about the educational impact of limiting student populations to specific genders or races. "There’s all this evidence accumulating to suggest that diversity is important to learning," said Richard Kahlenberg, an education researcher at the Century Foundation who helped design the relatively new tiered-admissions system used by Chicago’s selective public schools. "And it seems to me that gender is an element of that question."

While some research reveals the positive outcomes associated with single-sex education, a 2011 story in Science magazine debunked many of the neurological justifications often cited to promote single-gender schools, calling these claims "pseudoscience." The article also examined how effective all-boys schools are in increasing academic achievement, using Urban Prep as an example to emphasize that the positive impacts of single-sex education are debatable:

Underperforming children in [single-sex] schools often transfer out prematurely, which inflates final performance outcomes. An example is Chicago’s Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, a school whose high college admission rates have led to praise as a success story for [single-sex] education. However, when graduation rates at Urban Prep and similar schools are computed relative to freshman enrollment, they are comparable to those of other area public schools.

A 2014 analysis published by the American Psychological Association examined 184 studies concerning same-sex education and drew similar conclusions. The authors separated these reports into two categories: those that had control groups and those that didn’t. Notably, only the studies that lacked a control group (and were thus less reliable) produced results in favor of single-sex education, the distinction often very slight. Studies that used control groups found few remarkable differences between single-sex and coed schooling and, in some instances, showed that coed schools produced notably better results—especially in terms of girls’ achievement.

Indeed, many experts stress that the evidence is limited on the benefits of single-sex schooling. As Lea Hubbard, a sociology professor at the University of San Diego, who’s studied the effects of gender, race, and income on education, recently told me, single-gender education is not a "magic bullet … You have to have a lot of other things that make up quality education."

In other words, the limited scientific agreement on whether single-sex education is helpful, harmful, or something in between—along with the varying research on other types of student diversity—means it’s difficult to deduce whether the D.C. proposal is a good idea. Even its backers acknowledge the plan’s uncertainty: "The jury is still out," Simmons said. "But the jury currently says that it doesn’t do any harm."