As two all-girls schools open in L.A. this year, a motto emerges: 'We want you to know your voice matters'

The sixth-graders at the Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) zigzagged onto campus in Panorama City, all hair twirls and folded arms. It was their first day of middle school and the charter school’s first day, too.

Principal Vanessa Garza, who wore the school’s uniform — yoga pants, GALS T-shirt — gave the girls a taste of its ethos when she asked them to decide as a group whether to call teachers by their first names.

“We’re empowering you, and we want you to know your voice matters,” she told her advisory class. 

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GALS is one of two new all-girls schools that opened this year in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Just 17 miles southeast of the leadership school, the Girls Academic Leadership Academy welcomed new students last month.

Ella Salim, a spunky 11-year-old, bonded with L.A. schools Supt. Michelle King as they waited in the bustling office of the new district-run school in Mid-City. King admired Ella’s purple-rimmed glasses, and recommended that she check out the Purple Store.

Purple is the new school’s color, and Ella escorted King to cut the purple ribbon. “The year of the woman continues,” King told the crowd at the opening ceremony. “It’s not always easy to be the first, but you believe and you are here.”

Single-sex public schools are far rarer than private ones, and the new ones in Los Angeles highlight subjects dominated by men. GALS emphasizes athletics, and GALA focuses on math and science.

For the first time in U.S. history, a woman  is leading a major-party presidential ticket. The perception of gender — and of the differences between boys and girls — is constantly evolving.

So why is the nation’s second-largest school district boosting single-sex schools now?

The women behind both all-girls schools came to them through experience. 

GALA Principal Elizabeth Ackerman Hicks has worked in L.A. Unified for 30 years, as a teacher, counselor and administrator. But single-sex schools piqued her interest when her daughters got scholarships to the private, all-girls Marlborough School. “As a public school teacher, I was impressed,” she said.

She wanted to build a school that leveled the playing field in STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — while helping girls build self-confidence and curiosity. So she started talking to parents about bringing a similar approach to the district.

One of King’s three daughters went to the private Archer School for Girls, and the superintendent shared similar sentiments. “Finally, we’re able to provide an opportunity that has been reserved to the select few,” she said at the athletic leadership school’s opening ceremony.

Hicks’ proposal, submitted three years ago, said that although L.A. Unified girls tied or bested their male peers’ scores in standardized-test math and science through fifth grade, they fell behind by high school.

Carrie Wagner, executive director of the Los Angeles athletic leadership school, grew up in Cleveland, and was bullied by girls in middle school. Then, she transferred to an all-girls Catholic school. “It kind of healed everything,” she said. “I moved from not being comfortable around girls to realizing they’re my sisters.”

Wagner said she was often inspired by educational entrepreneurs who started schools when she was working at a nonprofit organization that provided business and support services to charter schools. She later worked for Citizens of the World, a group of charters. But she’d never thought of starting one of her own.

Then one of her clients who had moved to Denver called and raved about her daughter’s new school, GALS, which integrated movement into academics, set goals and helped the girls reach them.

Wagner immediately knew she wanted to bring the model to Los Angeles. “There is an academic benefit from the kids learning about health,” she said. The heart of it, she said, was creating a school that supported social and emotional development.

Wagner said she hopes the two all-girls schools will be partners and help cure “the bad juju about the tensions between district and charter schools.”

It wasn’t that long ago that it would have been much more difficult to open an all-girls public school. 

Title IX, a federal law best known for the provision requiring schools to allow boys and girls to equally participate in sports, initially barred single-sex schools. But as more people asked, regulations softened. In 2006, the government explicitly allowed the creation of a school for one gender as long as its district also provided a “substantially equal school” for the other one.

So in 2014, a year after Hicks proposed the all-girls school, the district asked her to write a proposal for a companion all-boys school, which will open next year.

Wagner also is planning an all-boys school.

The district checked with the state to see whether same-sex schools violated state laws. The state said no waivers were necessary. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued single-sex schools, saying they’re discriminatory and stereotype students. But it has announced no such plans concerning the L.A. schools. 

Yet Amy Katz, the ACLU lawyer behind those lawsuits, said bluntly, “We think that California law flatly prohibits single-sex public schools.”

The rise of girls’ schools raises a bigger question: Are they better? 

The heads of the new schools cite various studies showing benefits such as higher graduation rates. But overall, research is mixed. A recent paper published in the Psychological Bulletin analyzed 184 previous studies of single-sex schools and found, on balance, that uncontrolled studies showed “some modest advantages” in math but not science, and controlled studies found “only trivial differences.” 

At the end of the day, Hicks said, it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t contend that all-girls schools are for everyone. She wants to provide the option.

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The GALA students jumped on and around their desks, trying to solve a crime.

“She killed someone, she killed someone!” hollered Audrey Czerniewski, a small 11-year-old with braces, jean cut-offs and a blond bun. 

The girls were in a forensic workshop at the school’s orientation and were playing detectives. They’d just learned that the owner of a fictional place called the Classic Coffee Shop had gotten sick after whipping up a batch of cookies. Who had poisoned his supplies?

“I don’t think it was the first girl,” said Francis Abu Shanab, a freckled 10-year-old wearing a headband with sparkly panda ears.

Alicia Harris, an 11-year-old from Inglewood, wasn’t buying it. “Why do we believe her?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. 

There was a break in the case: two sets of shoe prints. “Oh my God. It’s two girls!” Audrey squealed.

Then, more evidence: a woman’s hair in a plastic bag. A sheet of fingerprints, one speckled with white dots that appeared to be of the poison.

The students were riveted, and before lunch, they formed a “friendship circle,” holding hands and reversing directions while staying connected. 

It was only day two of orientation, but the girls already had nicknames for each other. Twix, Not Normal, Skittles, Laughing 10, Bad Braids, Sugar. 

Audrey said she is starting the leadership academy because of its math and science offerings. The STEM curriculum is project-based, and the school has two flight simulators. It also emphasizes going to college, so much that  during orientation, a college counselor had already addressed the sixth-graders on the topic. 

She also wanted to escape boys. They threw spitballs and got her into trouble.

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Most days at GALS start with schoolwide workouts — so far, running or yoga — and an affirmation about empowerment and good choices. The focus on physical health extends to class. Students can eat in classrooms, “because we want them to understand their bodies,” Wagner said.

Carrots, celery sticks, crackers and standing are allowed. Every 30 minutes, students get “brain breaks,” bursts of movement to help them focus. 

On the first day, girls voiced different reasons for being there. Brisa Zielina, an Encino 10-year-old who wears glasses, said the athletic leadership school “feels like a safer environment, because boys can be not as kind.”

Alejandra Soto, an 11-year-old with her hair pulled back in a purple sequined bow, said she’s concerned about childhood obesity and thinks healthy choices are better “than that Cheetos lifestyle.” Besides, she said. “I wanted to come here because I can talk more to girls than to boys. I can talk about things like ...”

“Puberty!” a friend burst out.

Amerie Gallegos, 10, wants to fill a gap. “Men mostly are leaders for this country and state, but there are few women,” she said. “I want to be a woman girls can look up to.”

By the end of their first week, the girls had taken action as one body. Seventy-three percent of them had voted to call their teachers by their first names.

Principal Garza had become Mrs. Vanessa.

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at Joy.Resmovits@LATimes.com

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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