A New Generation of All-Girls Schools

They’re focusing on STEM in an effort to close the achievement gap.

Students dressed in purple polos sit in a classroom with papers, pencils, and a laptop strewn in front of them.
Students at the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (Audrey Cleo Yap)

The “maker space” room for the Girls Academic Leadership Academy in Los Angeles isn’t completed yet. But if the strands of uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows—remnants of a tower-building exercise—strewn about are any indication, it’s already been put to use.

The leadership academy, or GALA, is one of two all-girls schools that opened in the area this school year and Los Angeles Unified School District’s first public all-girls school. In California, it’s the first non-charter, single-sex school California has seen in 20 years—and certainly the first one to focus on STEM in the state’s history.

With 160 students in grades six and nine, GALA is housed on Los Angeles High School’s co-ed campus. Thirty percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch; Hispanic and African-American students make up 61 percent of the school. It is expected to be at full capacity with 700 middle- and high-school students by 2020.

The school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) emphasis is further evidenced in an adjacent room containing two flight simulators. The sixth-graders will use them this year for a family genealogy project that involves researching the home cities of their ancestors and mapping flight patterns to them from Los Angeles International Airport.

“It’s to spark the interest but also about making science and math fun. They’re doing science and math while they’re doing this flight pattern, but maybe not really realizing all the different pieces they have to put together, whether it’s topography or angles or basic math to calculate fuel,” said Elizabeth Hicks, the school’s principal. She hopes to have female pilots talk to GALA students on-campus one day.

Sixteen miles away, in the San Fernando Valley, 100 or so sixth-graders of the Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) gather in an auditorium for a twice weekly yoga session, downward-dogging in unison atop neon-colored mats. Like GALA, GALS—a charter school that opened its first campus in Denver—is similarly housed on the campus of a co-ed public school, Vista Middle School. It has a similar mission: empowering female students in fields where males have traditionally dominated—in their case, athletics.

“We believe that everyone’s an athlete,” said Carrie Wagner, the executive director of GALS. Wagner, a former COO of a charter-school nonprofit, credits attending an all-girls high school for giving her confidence throughout her career.

She has no formal teaching experience but leads GALS 101, a daily health and wellness class. The students are working through a series titled “Like a Girl,” learning about influential young women like Mo’ne Davis, the 15-year-old Little League pitching phenomenon.

It’s the only all-girls middle school in the area, which is considered high-need. In 2015, 11 percent of Vista’s students demonstrated proficiency or better in English language arts and 7 percent in math according to California standardized testing results. Wagner estimates that up to 75 percent of GALS students are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

GALA and GALS are just two examples of not only a renewed interest in single-sex education, but also a trend among all-girls institutions seeking to empower young women in the classroom through tailored learning programs. These include a STEM-focused curriculum, like Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls in St. Louis, Solar Preparatory in Dallas, and Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Other co-ed schools—including ones in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district—have allowed single-sex classrooms for math and science subjects in middle and high schools in an attempt to raise academic achievement in both subject areas among students. And then there are the numerous after-school programs and initiatives geared toward getting girls interested in math, science, and engineering; even the Girl Scouts have jumped on the STEM bandwagon.

How to address the so-called “achievement gap” between boys and girls in subjects such as math and science has swirled among researchers, educators, and policymakers for decades. And there’s uncertainty over just how big that gap is: The data can be conflicting, depending on who is being evaluated and by what kind of test.

For example, earlier this year, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed girls edging out boys in overall proficiency. But while girls earn higher grades on average and have long outperformed boys in academic areas like language arts, a gap in math and science seems to persist.

A widely cited report published in 2015 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that even high-achieving girls lag behind high-achieving boys in mathematics, science, and problem-solving. The report was based on results of the 2012 PISA standardized tests taken by 15-year-olds around the world. For math, this was true in the majority of countries, including the U.S. The discrepancy could be attributed to how males and females react in competitive testing environments, as suggested by a Stanford study on the gender gap in math test scores.

Indeed, the achievement gap does not exist exclusively along gender lines and seems to be more pronounced when examined by class and race. In a study published last month by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, researchers found that students of color start to lag behind their white counterparts in science as early as kindergarten. They found no discernible gender gap at that level.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama spoke about the need for science, math, and engineering teachers to help mitigate what some have called a STEM job crisis that may threaten the U.S.’s global competitiveness in decades to come (others say this worry is overblown). “Over the next 10 years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math,” he said.

A gymnasium filled with girls strikes a yoga pose.
Students at GALS practice yoga. (Audrey Cleo Yap)

This led to the creation of 100Kin10, an organization tasked with meeting that number by 2021. “Right now, a tiny percentage of the world’s population have the skills and knowledge and self-empowerment to be at the table called STEM. They’re mostly privileged, mostly white and mostly male. You look at that, and it’s no surprise that [STEM-based global] problems haven’t been solved,” said Talia Milgrom-Elcott, the organization’s executive director.

In a 2013 survey by the Census Bureau, women accounted for only 26 percent of STEM workers. While women’s representation in all STEM occupations had grown, in 2011, they still remained significantly underrepresented in computer and engineering jobs, which make up 80 percent of STEM occupations. The same goes for minorities: The survey found that blacks represent only 6 percent of the STEM workforce and Hispanics, 7 percent.

But whether or not single-sex education is the answer is up for heated academic and legal debate. “We can empower girls to get more interested in STEM in co-ed schools. We don’t need single-sex schools to do this,” said Diane Halpern, a professor emerita of psychology at Claremont McKenna College and the former president of the American Psychological Association. Halpern is a co-author of the 2011 report, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” published in Science, that suggested single-sex education is ineffective and reinforces gender stereotypes.

“The consequences of having all-boys classrooms may even be worse [than all-girls ones], frankly. Girls, on average, are better students. They sit more quietly. They have a calming effect. And then what about children who do not fit our sex stereotypes about what girls should be like and what boys should be like?” Halpern said.

She adds that segregating females in single-sex settings will not adequately prepare them for co-ed university and working environments. “[A school setting] is really the only place where they’ll have that kind of everyday interaction, five or six hours, that just isn’t replicable in any other setting. A Friday night party is not going to be the same,” she said.

The ACLU for its part has filed lawsuits and complaints against single-sex programs. The group argues that many programs violate Title IX and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.

“There are no proven benefits to single-sex education based on valid data showing a need to separate students in classrooms on the basis of sex,” said Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU. “[And speaking] specifically to the schools that are based on a focus on STEM, what message are we sending to girls when we suggest that they have to be separated from boys to succeed in science or math, or vice versa?”

On the two LAUSD schools that opened this year, Amy Katz, an ACLU lawyer, told the Los Angeles Times, “We think that California law flatly prohibits single-sex public schools.” (Both GALS and GALA have plans to open boys’ schools in the future.)

But critics call these kinds of campaigns misguided. And many experts point to research showing that single-sex schooling is beneficial for children. Immersing girls in a male-heavy environment might not be the way to boost girls’ interests in STEM, said Leonard Sax, the author of Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge and a vocal proponent of single-sex education partly based on the highly controversial notion that boys and girls fundamentally learn differently. “The big differences between girls and boys are not in what they can do, but in what they want to do,” Sax said via email. “A major factor driving the continuing underrepresentation of girls and women in computer sciences is the fact that girls say they don’t like computer science.” He cites a Washington University study that showed that middle-school-aged girls expressed more interest in a coding project when they were taught in a “girl-friendly” way—that is, engaging them in storytelling-driven programming versus task-driven programming.

Where Sax and Halpern agree is that education for girls and boys isn’t one-size-fits-all and can be a matter of fitness and choice. Yet this choice has, historically, been one that’s easier for wealthy families to make.

Schools like Solar Preparatory in Dallas hope to change that, too. The all-girls public school focused on both STEM and the arts opened this year and is piloting a socioeconomic diversity program in which 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Jessica Meza, 27, and her family fall into that category. The stay-at-home mother, whose husband is in dental school, had initially planned to home-school her daughter Madison, 5, before deciding to enroll her in the K-8 school. “It’s been a few weeks, and Maddy loves it. She loves the maker space. That’s the one subject she loves to talk about,” Meza said. According to Meza, Madison is also enthusiastic about Solar Prep’s message of empowerment with activities like the morning Sisterhood Circle (students gather for chants and songs) and learning about prominent women. “Maddy came home talking about Laura Bush the other day,” Meza said, laughing.

In developing the school’s curriculum, Nancy Bernardino, its principal, said that teaching STEM and arts subjects does require a departure from traditional classrooms for both females and economically disadvantaged students. “For us, the single-gender approach was more about helping girls really find their voice and become really self-aware at an early age. [And] when we go and win our first robotics competition, it’s not going to be against all females,” she said. Like GALS and GALA, Solar Prep also offers yoga.

Solar Prep took over the campus of a school that previously shut down due to low enrollment, although Bernardino does not anticipate that being a problem: The school opened with 198 students in kindergarten through second grade. She expects enrollment to double next year and eventually swell to 1,100 students when the school reaches full capacity.

In LA, GALS and GALA anticipate similar increases in growth, although this will mean outgrowing the shared real estate they are both currently in. Certain infrastructure is already lacking at GALA: Staff and students use portable restrooms since construction on permanent ones won’t be completed until 2017. They have yet to build chemistry labs for next year’s 10th graders. At GALS, there are no bells indicating when class periods begin or end, although they do ring throughout the campus for Vista Middle School students. GALS girls like America Delgado, 11, don’t seem to mind.

After her morning yoga class, the sixth-grader talks excitedly about being in an all-girls school (she went to a co-ed elementary school before) and her dreams of being a vet one day, a profession that has seen an uptick in women. “Boys aren’t the only ones who can accomplish things,” she said. “Girls can make history as well as boys.”