There are so many logical reasons why it may make sense, in the eyes of parents, to postpone enrolling in an all girls’ school. In some ways, it may be the argument that parents make about enrolling their children in independent schools (single sex or coed) in the early years, to begin with. An independent school education is expensive. Families can save a significant amount of money if they postpone enrollment.
And then the additional question for us in girls’ schools becomes: why is all girls’ so important in lower school? If we use the argument that boys are a distraction in the teenage years, then, clearly, in lower school, that argument does not hold water. In addition, is it not better to introduce girls to a coed world in their early years? Isn’t that real life?
While there really does exist a dearth of data on the benefit of an all girls’ education relative to the elementary years, it takes spending only a few hours in an all girls’ lower school to see, to hear and to feel what makes the experience so powerful.
I have great respect and admiration for the work that happens in our lower school, every day. I consider the director of our lower school a close and trusted friend. She and I spend a lot of time talking about girls, girls’ development, education, you name it. Some of what follows is the result of those conversations, as well as my own observation in what I consider a gem of a lower school.
Consider the following stereotypes about girls: they are good and quiet, they are not good at math and science, they are click-y and mean. All of those stereotypes live out there in the world. And yet, visit a girls’ lower school and you will see the following:
• Girls are not quiet when you give them space to be heard. They have a lot to say. They consider, they observe. Girls’ schools give them a place to develop their voice – and – most importantly, retain that voice throughout their development, even when girls go “underground”, as Carol Gilligan so aptly described it. In coed schools, teachers might have to manage boys’ energy in ways that distracts from girls (by which I don’t mean for a moment that all girls are quiet types and all boys are bundles of kinetic energy.) That distraction may contribute to the notion that girls are quiet and good – and may rob girls of opportunities to speak up and out.
• In girls’ schools, girls are not “bossy”, but their voice is recognized as that of burgeoning leadership. While the execution of their leadership voice may be inelegant, at times, and still somewhat crude, teachers in all girls’ lower schools are, I find, extraordinarily attuned to listening for the leadership voice in their girls – and helping them to develop it.
• In an all girls’ setting, curriculum and pedagogy can be developed with the girl learner in mind. Here is what we know: girls thrive in relationships. In an all girls’ school, we can adjust our instructional delivery to incorporate collaborative projects. Girls love to see connections between content areas – and understand the relevance of what they are learning. Consider an interdisciplinary project that incorporates science and art in which girls learn how to make their own fabric dye and then use that dye to create beautiful scarves – true wearable works of art. During the process, they also have to learn how to calculate ratios….. and, all of a sudden, the need to learn new math concepts is no longer a chore, but a challenge taken on with enthusiasm, barely held in check.
• And as to that mean girl phenomenon? The indictment that girls are “click-y?” We, in all girls’ lower schools, believe that girls are kids. And that kids make mistakes – and that we want them to. We want them to mess up, and we want to help them figure out the lesson learned. And along the way, we help them understand that they are part of a sisterhood, not in competition with one another. One of our graduates once told me how, in her 13 years at our school, she built a bond with her classmates that is unbreakable. They cheered her on and dried her tears in equal measure.
I hope I conveyed a small slice of the reality of an all girls’ lower school. While perhaps not easily measurable, or quantifiable, the strength and power of the experience is palpable – in the classrooms as well as the girls themselves.