Contentedly not coed

Tradition: For 157 years, Western High has found success in all-girls enrollment.

October 24, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The long white gown valedictorian Delia Alford wore to commencement in 1906 hangs in a glass case at Western High School, near a Class of 1925 "Westward Ho!" yearbook and a set of entrance examinations from 1856.

Here, in the archive room, the Baltimore school's 157-year history is chronicled.

Since opening its doors in a two-room building downtown to a class of 36 in 1844, Western has relocated six times, had 14 principals and graduated thousands of students.

One thing has remained constant through it all: None of the students have been boys.

"We have been blessed, in that we have not had to worry about males enrolling here," says Landa McLaurin, principal of Western, the country's oldest public girls school. "The community pretty much accepts us as an all-girls school because we've been so successful."

Although often overshadowed by its higher-profile peers -- Polytechnic Institute and City College -- Western has become one of the best high schools in Baltimore. Its SAT scores are the city's third highest, and about 94 percent of its graduates are accepted at colleges each year.

Kristin Wiggins, the senior class president, knows exactly what she likes about it.

"No distractions. No boys," the 16-year-old explains on Senior Day, after the class has posed for its portrait in the stadium bleachers. "You get your work done. You don't really have to worry about impressing people."

Of the nearly 250 girls in her class, she says, "We've really grown into Western. We were loud and rowdy, and now we're more dignified."

As recently as 10 years ago, only one other public girls school still existed in the United States: Philadelphia School for Girls, founded in 1848. The rest had long since closed or, in the case of Baltimore's Eastern High, merged with a co-ed school.

Now, as enrollment in girls schools is on the rise nationwide, Western has found itself serving as a resource for other school districts interested in providing girls-only programs.

According to the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, at least 32 girls schools have opened during the past five years, including the publicly funded Young Women's Leadership School, launched in East Harlem in 1996, and the Young Women's Leadership Charter School, begun in Chicago last year. Enrollment at both private and public girls schools has increased by 29 percent since 1991.

"We call it a renaissance," says Whitney Ransome, the coalition's co-executive director.

Although it's not advertised, boys have the right, under federal law, to enroll at Western. The myth about a renegade boy who wanted to enroll there some years back is just that: It turns out that he thought he was applying to the former Western Vocational Technical school in the county.

McLaurin, Western's principal, is appropriately diplomatic -- but clear -- about her feelings on breaking the tradition.

"We're not encouraging that," she says. "Not on my watch."

When Western opened, the building in which it was located, Armitage Hall at 100 N. Paca St., rented for $200 a year, and a lone teacher who doubled as the school's principal taught all 30 subjects offered.

Times have changed. The school, now housed in a nearly 300,000-square-foot facility on Falls Road, has 66 teachers -- 47 women and 19 men -- and three assistant principals.

The walls of teacher Robert Ragin's classroom are decorated with inspirational sayings on fluorescent paper. One is from Malcolm X: "Education is our passport to the future."

Ragin calls on the girls in his ninth-grade world history class, using "Miss" and their last names, asking them to define "Reformation" and "Allah" and identify historical figures such as Martin Luther.

Upstairs, Brian King's health class is learning the warning signs of an abusive relationship. The girls in Gisele Gantt's Biology II class are working in small groups in a newly renovated lab.

There is conflicting research about the benefits of all-girls schools. Some studies say the schools boost academic achievement, particularly in science, math and technology -- subjects in which boys are often thought to do better. Other studies say there's no proof that girls do better when they are separated from boys.

Michael Franko, former head of the guidance department, thinks single-sex education -- for both sexes -- gives students the chance to thrive in a way that coeducation doesn't.

"With the girls, especially, they're not in that battle of trying to look cutesy for the boys and to subjugate themselves," he says. "Because [in] every case study in psychology, you put girls in an environment and you put boys in an environment, [and] the boys are the ones who get the attention, because they demand it."

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