Laughing girls file through the decorated hallways in plaid skirts and deep-colored blazers or sweaters. Administrators stop to say hello to the girls and know them all by name-and the girls respond in kind, referring to the principal by her first name as well. In the classrooms, teacher and students sit around in small circles or at work stations, on couches or on floor rugs, discussing how biology should be defined or looking up different words with the root "anthro" in the dictionary to try to find their meanings. Every classroom has a small computer center where girls can work on projects or run programs. Girls raise their hands often and willingly, the exuberance of learning and adolescence made manifest.
Sounds like a progressive private girls' academy on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or a boarding school in New Hampshire? Not quite. This is the Young Women's Leadership School, and it is a public school in East Harlem. Opened last year in an effort to boost girls' confidence and to provide a supportive and challenging academic environment, the experimental charter school on 106th Street should be reveling in its success. The school admitted 55 seventh-grade girls for the year 1996-97 and it re-opened its doors this September to 165 girls in the seventh through the ninth grades.
By the fall of 2000, the Young Women's Leadership School plans on housing a full junior high and high school, grades seven to 12. Every single girl admitted to the seventh grade class returned to the school except for one girl whose family left New York City. More than two applications came in for each of the 165 spots open this year.
But instead of being able to focus exclusively on building on success and moving forward, the Young Women's Leadership School is fighting back the threat of lawsuits. Last week, the United States Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights stated that the all-girls school appears to violate civil rights laws under Title IX because it discriminates on the basis of sex. The Federal education officials asked the Board of Education to begin negotiating a solution, leaving open the possibility that a compromise-in the form of an all-boys school in the same area-may be sufficient to keep the school open.
However, Michael Meyers, the executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition which joined in the complaint against the school, indicated that he would be angry and disappointed with any solution that maintained single-sex schools, calling such a compromise a "phyrric victory." Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, equally resolute, is standing firmly behind the Young Women's Leadership School.
The position of single-sex schools vis-a-vis Title IX's prohibition against sex discrimination has never been clearly established by the courts. The Supreme Court addressed the issue of single-sex public education in the pre-college years only once, in 1976. The decision of the Court was to uphold the constitutionality of single-sex boys and girls schools in Philadelphia.
The compelling educational aspect seems clear: the positive impact of single-sex schools for girls has been proven repeatedly in comparative studies of educational attainment and self-esteem in young girls in co-ed and single-sex institutions. More recent studies showing the propensity of teachers to call on boys in the classroom and to privilege boys' views over those of girls is further indication of the potential benefit of single-sex education for girls. And in terms of comparable services for both sexes, the findings of a number of researchers have shown that boys do not perform better without girls in the classroom, whereas girls show marked improvements in all-female learning environments.
There is a deep irony in all this. That the very laws and regulations originally intended to ensure that women receive fair treatment in a society with lingering gender inequalities may be used to shut down one of only a few public schools devoted specifically to young women is a strange and sorry development.
The possible (mis) use of Title IX to close down a school whose mission to help young women become "self-confident, self-reliant, independent learners" parallels the motivating logic of Title IX-to ensure that women have the opportunity to become such self-confident and self-reliant people, as men have-forces us, as thinking citizens, to re-evaluate the relationship between law, its goals and its application. There has always been a tension in legal decision-making between a strict construction, privileging the letter of the law, and a looser one, in which a more flexible understanding of the law's intention dominates. Perhaps the Young Women's Leadership School is an example of when the letter of the law must give way to a more elastic understanding of its intention. Losing the potential of exuberant young women learners would be a sad testimony to the thoughtless stringencies of a legal system gone awry.
"That the very laws intended to ensure women receive fair treatment may be used to shut down a public school devoted to young women is a sorry development."