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A mid all the hoopla in the last two weeks about the crash of TWA Flight 800 and the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, New Yorkers for the most part have not noticed a significant battle that may substantially affect the future of New York City public schools.
A proposed middle school in District Four in East Harlem is currently scheduled to open its doors to 50 seventh-graders this fall. The catch? All those seventh-graders will be girls.
Although the Young Women's Leadership School has been in the planning stages for the last eight months and has been approved by the school board of District Four, the proposed school only first caught the attention of the media and other interested parties in mid-July.
The day The Daily News first reported about the proposed school, the director of the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to Schools' Chancellor Rudy Crew asking him to intervene to block the opening of the school because it is discriminatory in not allowing boys. Crew and the New York City Board of Education have not officially approved the school, which they must do before it can open.
It is unfortunate that in its rush to condemn the school, the Civil Liberties Union and other organizations that oppose the school on the grounds that it is single-sex do not consider the history of public education in general and in New York City's District Four in particular.
The rationale for the school lies in the fact that studies show that girls, particularly from poor neighborhoods, learn better when boys are not in the classroom. Organizers say that the school will emphasize math and science--two subjects in which girls have often lagged behind boys.
And District Four, long one of the worst-performing school districts in New York City, has a history of success with alternative programs. Central Park East, a progressive teacher-run junior high and high school founded in 1974, has succeeded in substantially improving school performance. Central Park East Elementary, which opened a few years later, has done the same at the elementary level.
Granted, the Young Women's Leadership School should not be a model for the public school system because we should not return to the days when single-sex schools were the rule, not the exception. Nevertheless, as an alternative school designed to improve the generally poor performance of girls in math and the sciences, it deserves a shot.
Those who oppose the school cite the 14th Amendment, the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments and a little-known 1991 New York City law out-lawing single-sex public schools. They also point to the Supreme Court's ruling last month that the Virginia Military Institute had to admit women because it receives state financial aid.
However, the contrasts between the proposed middle school and the VMI are huge. VMI had served as an elite gateway into military service, professional businesses and high-paying jobs. The proposed middle school is simply trying to level an uneven playing field by giving underprivileged black and Hispanic girls chances they may otherwise never get.
The proposed school, located on three floors of a leased building on 106th Street near Park Avenue, has hired a director and three teachers and has already accepted more than half of this fall's students. Hopefully, the Chancellor will come to his senses and allow the school--which organizers hope to expand to 8th and 9th graders in 1997 and perhaps 10th through 12 graders in 1998--to respond to the educational needs it was designed to meet.
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