The Case for Single-Sex Schools ; Rosemary Salomone Says Families of All Incomes Should at Least Have the Option of One-Sex Schools

Article excerpt

The 1990s was a crossroads decade for single-sex education. Female cadets marched their way into two previously all-male public colleges - the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel in South Carolina. At the same time, urban school districts from Detroit to New York tried to provide the option of a single-sex environment.

Rosemary Salomone didn't know she was soon to become an expert on the subject. The professor at St. John's University School of Law in New York was called upon for legal advice by the founder of the Young Women's Leadership School in Harlem. The public school, which emphasizes math and science, opened in 1996 with 50 seventh-grade girls. Surviving the threat of lawsuits, it gradually expanded through 12th grade and inspired the founding of an all-girls charter school in Chicago.

Dr. Salomone's research took her far beyond Harlem - through Supreme Court cases, ideological debates, and the intricacies of Title IX, the law that bans sex discrimination in federally funded education. It took her to high schools in Philadelphia and Baltimore that had retained their long-standing all-girl status as the country went coed.

In her new book, "Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Education" (Yale University Press), she argues that there is a place for single-sex education in the public realm. In 2002, Congress agreed, adding a provision to the No Child Left Behind law permitting single-sex programs. Clearer guidance on what districts need to do to make sure such programs comply with Title IX is due this summer.

As she awaited the guidelines, Salomone spoke with the Monitor over the phone from her home in Rye, N.Y. Excerpts follow.

How did your experience in a single-sex school influence your views?

Every teacher was a woman - many of them were nuns. There wasn't the traditional gender polarization that often happens in coed schools. Any girl could be president of the student government or editor in chief of the newspaper. We had a winning basketball team. And you went to school not worried about how you looked. It gave you the sense of limitless possibilities.

When I was visiting the all-girls schools, girls would say: "Yes, we believe that the single-sex aspect of this school is what's important. We're not distracted by boys. We can focus on the academics. We're all like family here; we feel like sisters."

What underlay the opposition to single-sex schools in the 1990s?

There [was] misunderstanding about single-sex schools, a lot of it being a holdover of the finishing-school [image].

Some of the negative feelings were coming from the historical exclusion of women from all-male schools. But with [the students at] these schools [I visited], it was a matter of trying to give them the skills and attitudes and knowledge [that would] lift them up - not just academically, but socially.

I found a very clear division within the ranks of women who would consider themselves feminists. Very often, women supporting these schools had attended a single-sex college or high school. [Opponents] had never stepped into a single-sex school. They seemed to be stymied in a certain vision of gender equality based purely on equal treatment and equal access and assimilation, which was very much a part of the women's movement in the 1970s. …