The 30-year-old federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in public schools may soon be altered, paving the way for separate classrooms for boys and girls.
The law, known as Title IX, may soon be altered because the U.S. Department of Education wants to give parents the option of enrolling their children in same-sex public school classes. Same-sex classes have long been available in private schools, but there are currently only 25 same-sex public high schools in the country.
Supporters of same-sex education say having boys and girls in separate classrooms allows them to focus less on each other and more on their schoolwork.
"You don't look around and go, 'Wow, there's no boys here,' " says Stefanie Kuonon, a senior at Philadelphia High School for Girls, one of the few single-sex public schools. "But you will notice there's not as much clowning around. You can talk about serious issues and there's not like laughing or stuff in the background because no one's embarrassed."
The top student in her class, Kuonon has a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. She says the school's supportive atmosphere helped her succeed — and it seems to have helped her classmates too: 95 percent of the school's seniors go on to college.
Principal Geraldine Myles roams the halls of "Girls' High" high-fiving her students and showering them with praise. She is an African American who grew up in the era of Brown vs. the Board of Education, which called for an end to racial segregation in public schools. But she has seen the benefits of separating girls from boys in classes. Without the presence of boys, Myles says, the girls focus more on academics and less on the latest fashion trends.
"I think the environment that we have here is one that maximizes learning and opportunity to develop for young women. And we do it well."
Clones of Girls' High?
Girls' high was founded long before title IX outlawed most same-sex classes over concern programs for just one sex discriminate against the other. Now with the proposed changes to the law, several districts across the country are poised to put in place programs similar to the ones at girls' high.
Same-sex education has influential advocates. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who went to a women's college, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, joined together to propose the changes to Title IX. But civil rights groups and some women's groups fear tinkering with Title IX is to take a step backwards.
"I'm worried that in the name of flexibility what we will go back to is separate and unequal — what we go back to is an OK sign that no girls can apply," says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center
Greenberger knows the value of same-sex education — she graduated from Girls' High herself — but she fears classes created just for boys or girls could be based on old stereotypes.
"We teach boys math and science and engineering and teach the girls the kinds of things girls have got to learn," she warns.
Students at girls' high insist they thrive in an all-girls environment. Along with a rigorous academic schedule that includes physics and foreign languages, they also are exposed to modern dance and art appreciation.
"It sets standards for me higher. Because people know I go to Girls' High, they say, 'that means she can handle this' and nobody is going to lower their expectations of me," says senior Shane Fletcher.
If the changes to title IX take effect this summer, it is possible same-sex classes or schools could begin in the fall. But opponents vow to challenge any changes in court.