Together or Apart?

Of the many issues facing parents considering a private school for their child, one of the thorniest probably is whether to send them to a single-sex school or co-educational school.In an era in which teen pregnancies are at an all-time high and female students are suing for admission into elite all-male military academies, there is a lot of debate over the perceived perils of a co-ed environment. And with women constantly raising the "glass ceiling" in the modern workplace, there's also a good deal of discussion about how important -- and relevant -- a single-sex education really is.Proponents of all-girl and all-boy schools, of course, say an education made up of single-sex classes is very important for a number of reasons."Boys and girls are different, obviously," says Cheryl Bordelon, an educator at the all-girl Archbishop Chapelle High School. "Girls learn one way, and boys learn another. When I taught a co-ed class, it became very obvious to me that they have different approaches to the world, different needs which are unique."When boys and girls are in a classroom together, it's well documented that boys are twice as likely to be seen as role models by their peers and teachers. Teachers tend to choose activities that appeal more to boys than girls, such as competition-based activities, while girls tend to learn better in a cooperative environment."Eileen Powers, the new headmistress at Louise S. McGehee girls school, agrees that females tend to learn better in such an environment. "Girls learn in collaborative ways that are different from ways that boys learn," she says. "Therefore, an environment which focuses on girls is one in which girls will succeed in a more beneficial manner."When we were founded, most girls went to girls' schools -- if they went at all. We have continued that tradition. Our mission is to educate girls and to provide a nurturing and challenging environment for them. They do not have to compete with boys for attention, and they don't have those distractions that boys can sometimes present. At a time when girls are being formed cognitively and morally, they are not being distracted from the task at hand."Principal Terry McGaha of Holy Cross, an all-boys school, concurs. "I find in certain situations that adolescent children tend to be more open to risk-taking, getting involved in things, when they're not worried about having to impress the opposite sex," he says. "In the classroom, in some cases, it may motivate them to work harder. If they're not sure what the answer to a question is, they're not going to make that inquiry because they don't want to look like a fool. That experience is heightened in a co-ed situation."On the other side of the fence, administrators at co-ed schools believe that it isn't necessary to segregate the sexes in order to provide a challenging atmosphere."It's important to have a very supportive kind of environment for people to share their ideas," says David Drinkwater, headmaster of Metairie Park Country Day, a co-ed school. "I believe quite strongly that having good cross-gender role models is very important. I headed a Quaker school before coming to Country Day, and my observation is that in that school and in this one, the environment was such that girls were really encouraged to participate fully and, in fact, were really leaders in classroom discussions and other activities. That illustrates to me that it's more the character of the school, rather than the gender, that's important."The bottom line, Drinkwater says: "I think the simplest answer is that it depends upon the child. Some children may appear to do better in a single-sex environment. What's important is the culture of the particular school, and whether it's a great match for the child."M.J. Montgomery Jr., headmaster of the co-ed Ridgewood Prep school, agrees. "I've seen youngsters who would do better in a co-ed school at one grade level and then feel the need for a single-sex school for grades 11 and 12."There are a lot of arguments [to both sides], but you know what they say about schools: What's the best school for Jimmy? The one that fits him the best, the one that's going to do the best job for him."


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