New York school is just for girls, and they like it Baltimore, Philadelphia have other two all-girls public high schools in U.S.

March 30, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - They have been together for only five months, but the students in the pioneering seventh-grade class at the all-girls public school in East Harlem have already begun to leave their marks on their surroundings.

First, the girls complained that their blue polyester uniforms were too itchy, and got the principal to commit to switching to cotton and wool.

Then they persuaded school officials to admit boys - but only for a night, for a Valentine's Day social. And soon there will be tryouts for the first school basketball team, created at the girls' insistence.

They are also learning that school does not end with the final bell: Those who have kept quiet in class have been startled to see their parents receive a letter from school, urging them to speak out.

This is the way that the founders of the Young Women's Leadership School had hoped it would be when, in a hotly debated decision last September, they moved to revive the city's long tradition of single-sex education - a tradition that faded away so quietly 10 years ago when the last such school closed that many New Yorkers did not realize that an era had ended.

The founders hope that the absence of boys will help girls build self-esteem, become more assertive and take on leadership roles. And in a sense, they are trailblazers: There are only two other all-girls public schools in the country, in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and the research on the subject is extremely limited.

The birth of the third school, on a commercial strip in East Harlem, was not easy. The New York Civil Liberties Union immediately derided the school's "no boys allowed" admissions policy as unfair. And some feminist groups, including the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, suggested that the school would set the girls back in preparing for a coeducational environment.

The outcry has yet to die down.

The U.S. Education Department is continuing to investigate whether the school is discriminatory to boys. New York University Law School devoted a recent all-day conference to the legal issues raised by the school's existence. And civil liberties advocates are still hoping to shut it down, or at least force the acceptance of a boy.

But while the outside world continues to be preoccupied with the novelty of it all, the 55 girls have quietly settled into a learning environment that they say feels, in places, like a genteel prep school - albeit one grafted onto the top three floors of a 12-story commercial building on East 106th Street.

Walk down the school's mauve hallways and you're likely to hear Mozart wafting from a portable stereo. All of the 11- and 12-year-old girls wear the school colors, blue and ivory, a requirement, although they have the option to wear skirts or pants, or sometimes sweatpants. And the classrooms are cozily furnished with rocking chairs and Oriental rugs, most of them supplied by the teachers.

"It feels like home," said Iris Giboyeaux, 12, who transferred to the school over the summer from the nearby Central Park East Secondary School. "You can be more open."

Indeed, particularly when it comes to talking about sex.

"Last year, if I would have brought up a question about masturbation, the boys would have laughed," said Albeliza Perez, 13, of the Bronx. "This year, I brought it up in class and the girls were like, 'Thanks, Abby.' "

Although the legal questions remain unresolved, school administrators are continuing to move ahead undaunted. The school is accepting applications from girls for next year (no boy ,, has applied, and administrators say they are not sure what they would do if one did). And when this year's class moves on to the eighth grade this fall, they will be joined by 55 new seventh- graders and another 55 ninth- graders.

Eventually, there are plans to have 330 students, in grades seven through 12.

It will take several years of testing to determine if the girls have raised their achievement in science and mathematics, the two subjects where boys traditionally outpace girls nationally. But for now, every effort is being made by the teachers to compensate for what girls lack in coed classrooms, at least according to the limited research that has been done.

Since some studies have shown that girls have a harder time picturing images of abstract mathematical concepts, the school's math teacher, Linda Metnetsky, has used props - a six-pack of Diet Coke or the sections of a cantaloupe, for example - to illustrate a discussion of fractions.

Metnetsky says that some girls who used to rely exclusively on paper and pencil to multiply two fractions can now do so, using such pictures, in their heads.

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