An Unplanned Lesson
Near the end of the 2007-08 academic year, some unusual news about one class at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan came home to Miriam Akabas and her daughter Ariel and other families of then-fifth-grade students: there would be no boys in the school’s sixth-grade class the following year. For various unconnected reasons, several families of end-of-year fifth-graders were moving from New York City; seven of the departing students were boys, all the males in the class. And so Solomon Schechter, the only day school in Manhattan under Conservative auspices, was the site of an unplanned social experiment from last September to June. Advisory teacher Mick Fine’s class was, as far as educators know, the only yearlong single-sex class in a non-Orthodox school in Jewish Theological Seminary the United States in recent memory. While haredi schools teach boys and girls separately starting in elementary school, and most coed Orthodox schools conduct separate classes in “religious” subjects, Jewish schools affiliated with other denominations or under nondenominational auspices teach boys and girls together as a matter of egalitarian policy. The 13-year-old Upper West Side school has always been coed too, until the past year’s girls-only class. “It was an accidental experiment,” says Dr. Steven Lorch, head of school. It was only one class and one year and 11 students, but the girls’ descriptions of their experiences, during the last week of classes, seemed to buttress the arguments of single-sex education advocates who cite theological, pedagogic and sociological reasons. During the conservative administration of President George W. Bush, government support for single-sex public schools was increased. Sitting in a busy cafeteria during lunchtime, and back in class later that afternoon, the Solomon Schechter girls talked animatedly about finding greater freedom to express themselves during instruction, and of encountering less competition in gym. In other words, everything that happens – according to the experts in favor of separate classes for boys and girls – when the sexes learn apart. “The girls must have read the research,” quipped Benjamin Mann, head of middle school. The girls’ reactions to the concluding year were not unanimous. Raising their hands and passionately arguing their points, they said they enjoyed the chance to learn and exercise without boys, but many also said they wouldn’t object if their class becomes coed again in the forthcoming school year. A few said they missed a male presence in class, although they saw boys in school outside of class, as well as in Hebrew classes, where they are joined by boys from other grades. All, even those who had been apprehensive when classes began, said 2008-09 was a productive year in school. At the least, all said, they better understand why some educational and religious leaders favor single-sex education. “I was kind of worried” at the beginning, said Ariel Kaminsky. “I didn’t know what to expect.” It turned out, she says, that the girls felt less pressure without boys around. “I was excited” when learning that she’d be in a girls-only situation, added classmate Rebecca Ashley. Other students said boys tend to dominate discussions and are aggressive, common complaints related by females of all ages. Several girls said their parents were concerned when learning that their daughters’ class in 2008-09 would not have any boys; the parents, including Miriam Akabas, expressed concern that the girls would lose a year of socializing skills that would be required later in life. But, the girls said, their parents, by the end of the school year saw how happy the daughters seemed in class. Fine, a sixth-grade teacher at the school for two years, said he noticed a different atmosphere from the coed class he had taught the previous year. Girls, by themselves, were more comfortable showing their sensitive side. “They were more expressive of their emotions.” And everyone participated in classroom discussions. “I heard even the quiet girls talk.” “It seems to confirm what the literature [about single-sex education] tells us,” says Rabbi Ellis Bloch, director of the department of yeshivot and day schools at the Board of Jewish Education of New York. At the elementary school level, he says, single-sex classes can be especially worthwhile for girls – their presence may cause boys to “turn down” their rowdiness.” Dr. Fishel Mael, an educational consultant from Baltimore who has conducted research on single-sex education, says he is not surprised that most of the girls in the Schechter School’s sixth-grade enjoyed their unique classroom situation. While there is little definitive empirical substantiation for the advantages of single-sex classes, anecdotal reports and extant studies suggest that girls, especially in pre-adolescent elementary school, find less harassment and fewer distraction without boys around, he says, and they are more apt to assume positions of leadership among their peers. “The girls feel better about themselves. They’re not pressured to be ‘dumb,’” to suppress their intelligence in order to impress the boys, Mael says. A single-sex classroom also eliminates the “sex bias” of teachers, who may automatically feel that members of one sex are automatically more gifted in certain subjects, he says. Lorch, a career educator, says he is reluctant to make generalizations from the experience of a single single-sex classroom, to state why – in the students’ opinions – Fine’s class was a success, or to determine if similar experiments would work in other classrooms. He cautioned that the students in Fine’s class were “unusually cohesive,” which may in part explain their extraordinary success. The Schechter School will remain coed this year, Lorch says. With one exception. The seventh grade class will be girls only again -- unless some boys enroll in it before the academic year starts in September.