Where the boys are: Case for all-male schools Differences: Advocates of single-sex schools say students learn better when education is tailored to their mental and physical needs.

April 11, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Boys' schools want their turn.

Through most of the 1990s, all-girls schools have worn a halo. Research and even best sellers have praised them as havens that foster leadership while eliminating stumbling blocks -- that is, boisterous boys -- to academic success.

Now, all-boys schools such as Gilman, Boys' Latin, Loyola and Calvert Hall want everyone to know they, too, have success at doing what they've done for decades. And that the schools are not bastions of sexism or deposits for disruptive energy.

"There's an argument on the girls' side of a sort of hot-house effect," says Mercer Neale, headmaster at Boys' Latin.

"It works the same way for guys. In the areas where their development lags, they get the nurture."

"Boys are more comfortable working individually," says Archibald Montgomery IV, headmaster at Gilman, where a 100th-anniversary symposium today addresses the topic of teaching boys. "They develop the ability to think abstractly later than girls.

"Until they get older, their attention spans are shorter than girls'. They are pancakes that need to be turned every 15 seconds, instead of every 30."

But the case is not as clear or well-researched as it is for all-girls schools.

Even within the small community of boys' schools there are wide differences of opinion. Some teachers and administrators are avid supporters of all-male schools; others question their influence and harbor bittersweet memories of their own single-sex educations.

Perhaps the most vigorous proponent is Richard A. Hawley, headmaster of the University School in Cleveland, president of the fledgling International Coalition of Boys' Schools and keynote speaker at Gilman's symposium.

Citing statistics that boys are more prone to learning disabilities, dropping out, suicide and murder, he says of education generally, "We're not doing well by boys. Girls are being badly served but however you read it, boys are served much more badly."

In addition, "Boys are behind intellectually for many of their years," he says, alluding to the long-substantiated slower developmental pace that often keeps boys from reading and writing -- and sitting still -- when girls do.

L But in boys' schools "these dreadful outcomes are not true."

Academic achievement is high, young men have opportunities to express themselves in nontraditional ways, and the belief that a locker-room mentality breeds sexism has been discounted, he says.

Almost no one disputes that boys develop later than girls. Likewise, boys and girls behave differently and face different challenges.

"Force boys to learn cursive writing when girls are ready for that skill and you get frustrated, fidgety boys. Make girls wait to write cursive script and you get bored girls," Montgomery wrote in a paper on single-sex schools.

All of this argues for different paces and styles of teaching, say the proponents of single-sex education, which always has been a tiny part of American education.

But there are those who say gender isn't critical.

"The issue of gender is far less important than the issue of excellence," says W. Boulton Dixon, headmaster of McDonogh School in Owings Mills, which changed from all-male to coeducational 20 years ago.

Excellence comes from adherence to a mission, from a strong faculty and from small classes, says Dixon, who attended all-boys schools and taught in them before coming to McDonogh.

"To me, gender has been a minor issue, and I've seen it from both sides," he says.

Still, one of the strongest arguments for single-sex education seems to be the distraction factor, which kicks in about the time the intellectual gap closes, in the middle-school years.

St. Paul's School Headmaster Robert Hallett, who is cautious in his enthusiasm for single-sex schools, says "at the middle-school level there are a lot of reasons to keep these kids apart. It's a good time for boys to be boys, to not have the additional distraction of girls in their immediate presence all the time."

Montgomery adds: "I don't think there's much question that there's a lot of sexual tension [in coed schools]. Boys and girls are put together when boys are like puppies and girls are much more mature. They are intensely curious about one another's bodies."

Montgomery sees single-sex schools as buffers "for dealing with puberty and the god-awful teen years. Boys in boys' schools have a comfort level. It's possible to get more done."

Even as they tailor education to the needs of their students, all-boys schools face challenges, headmasters say.

The schools must prepare boys for a different world than their fathers grew up in. It is no longer sufficient -- or even appropriate -- to toughen up the boys and send them into the world, educators say.

"In the 21st century, our boys have to be fully aware of who they are and good at working with others" -- traits not always strong in men, says Tim Blankenhorn, assistant headmaster of the Haverford School in Pennsylvania.

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