WESTSIDE COVER STORY : On Even Terms : Private All-Girl Schools Are Gaining Favor in Light of Reports That Public Education Suffers From Gender Bias Favoring Males Students

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IN THE MIDDLE OF A DISCUSSION ABOUT THE merits of single-sex education for girls, Sister Gina Marie interrupted a visitor’s question with an abrupt, yet polite, correction.

“We try to use the (term) ‘young women,’ not ‘girls.’ There’s a big difference (between) the two,” explained the principal of Notre Dame Academy, the all-female college-prep high school in West Los Angeles. “The students arrive as girls, but leave as young women. We’re trying to develop capable young women.”

The young women who attend all-girl schools such as Notre Dame Academy, Marlboro School for Girls, Marymount or Immaculate Heart high schools on the Westside say their campuses are havens where they develop leadership skills, freely express themselves, and excel in athletics and academics.


Such schools represent an old idea that has gained popularity on the heels of reports maintaining that public education often suffers from gender bias. These reports conclude that educators often teach in ways that foster boys’ success while overlooking the efforts of girls. For instance, a recent report found that teachers more often call on boys and frequently allow them to dominate classroom discussions.

Researchers have also found an increasing incidence of sexual harassment of students on public school campuses.

The primary all-girl schools on the Westside--Notre Dame, Marymount, Marlboro and Immaculate Heart--are all high schools, with Marlboro and Immaculate Heart including middle school grades as well. All have reported an increase in the number of enrollment inquiries.

“The application pool has gone up, given the recent press about gender bias in the schools,” said Sharon Stevens, director of admissions at Marymount High in Westwood.

“We have twice as many applicants as we do spaces,” said Sister Gina Marie of Notre Dame Academy.

Marymount, Immaculate Heart--which is in Hollywood--and Notre Dame are all Catholic schools; the Marlboro School for Girls in Hancock Park is an independent private school. All have enrollments of between 350 and 450 students. Low enrollment, say educators at the schools, means that students have easier access to teachers, who can spend more time, one-on-one, with students. At Marlboro, for example, the student-teacher ratio is 10-1.


Even among parents unaware of the recent studies, all-girl schools are increasingly seen as an attractive alternative.

Susanna Jones, director of the high school at Marlboro, said: “We are seeing our students come from a broader area. And the reason for this is increasing disillusionment with (the quality of education in) the public schools.”

“The teachers I have had really wanted for us to develop a really strong self-esteem,” said Lenita Morgan, a 15-year-old sophomore at Marlboro school. “I get the sense that we are really important, and what we have to say is important.”

Many students at all-female schools said that if boys were around they might be less opinionated in class or less involved in campus activities. “Girls struggle with looking too assertive or too smart,” Jones said. “The girls here have opportunities to take leadership roles, while in the process bucking some stereotypes.”

The heightened interest comes despite tuitions that range from $3,400 to $11,000 per year. And although many young women thrive at all-girl schools, it’s not for everyone. Some people say all-girl schools establish a sheltered environment that may not adequately prepare women to compete with men once they graduate.

But, for many, the schools offer a counterbalance to public education, which has been sharply criticized in recent studies.


The American Assn. of University Women published a study in 1992 that cast a harsh light on gender inequality in public school education. Girls are not as self-confident as boys when they emerge from schools, the study said, and they get less attention in the classroom.

At the elementary school level, girls and boys scored equally high in math and science, but by the middle school years girls’ achievement in these areas, particularly in science, begins to take a downward slide.

The slip has been attributed to the effects of the lingering perception that science and math are simply things “that men do,” the report said. But even when girls do well in these subjects, they receive less encouragement to pursue such disciplines, the report said.

Although differences in math achievement are narrowing, the study said, the gender gap in science may be increasing. In addition, girls seldom get a chance to learn about the accomplishments of women, the study said.

The group reported that a study of 13 popular U.S. history texts revealed that only 1% of the 13 textbooks had any material on women, and women’s lives were often trivialized, distorted or omitted.

The all-girl schools, whose faculties are usually headed by women, also offer relief from sexual harassment and bias by male students and teachers, which some researchers say has been on the rise in public schools.


In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex bias in school athletics, career counseling, medical services, financial aid and the treatment of students. Violators were threatened with the loss of federal funds. But many schools did not take the law seriously. Between 1972 and 1991, no school was denied federal funding because of sex discrimination, according to a 20-year study of inequity in public education titled “Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls,” written by Myra and David Sadker of American University in Washington, D.C.

In a survey of 1,600 middle- and high-school students conducted by Louis Harris last year, 85% of the girls polled said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. The survey also revealed that 33% of the girls reported they were targeted often, compared to 18% of the boys. One-third of the girls who reported harassment said they did not want to go back to school as a result of their treatment.

At the all-girl schools, students say the campuses are havens from such pressures. In addition, many such schools approach teaching in a manner that recognizes the differences between the ways that boys and girls learn.

“Studies have suggested that girls learn better in an environment that is hands-on, where they can work in groups and where they can see the practical application of a theory,” Jones said.

At Notre Dame Academy recently, four young women seated in a classroom talked about what they love most about going to an all-girl school.

“A lot of my friends who go to co-ed schools say they don’t feel as free to express themselves in front of boys,” said Jennifer Hatch, an honor student and a member of Notre Dame Academy’s basketball team. Her sentiments were echoed in the American Assn. of University Women report, which found that many young women grow up afraid to look too smart or too aggressive in front of boys.


Being in the all-female environment, said the students, enables them to focus on the most important aspects of high school life. For most teen-age girls, looking good is priority No. 1, they said, but that is much less a concern for those who attend all-girl schools.

“I don’t have to worry about my appearance so much,” said Virginia Cormier, a senior at Notre Dame Academy. “I hardly ever wear makeup to school. I’m here for school.”

If they are going to impress anyone, they say, it’s going to be because they became National Merit Scholars, not by dating the cutest guys on campus.

Cormier said that her experience as class president at Notre Dame has helped her gain an edge and develop in ways she feels she would have missed had she attended a co-ed high school.

“Men are not used to confident young women; they are intimidated by (the confidence),” she said with a laugh. An honor student who will be a senior this fall, Cormier believes she will have no problem competing with males when she goes to college and embarks on a career.

Sister Gina Marie said the school conducted a survey of Notre Dame graduates from the last six years. “We were amazed at the number of young women who went into math and science majors, and how well they did in those fields,” she said. She based the conclusion on an early assessment of the data, which is still being compiled.


A large percentage of recent grads, she added, went on to medical school and other fields traditionally dominated by males.

Entering 11th grade at Marlboro this fall, Lenita Morgan has her eyes on medical school at Stanford. She recently sat on a panel of students who interviewed candidates for the science department chair at Marlboro--and found too few female candidates for the job. Her experience on the panel further encouraged her to pursue science.

Although she believes she would have excelled at a co-ed school, “I would be a little more contained, having guys around. It’s still that idea that girls are not supposed to be too smart.”

Not having boys around, Lenita said, “really takes away a lot of the pressures we as teens have to begin with.”

Some girls in public schools, however, doubt that their private school peers are gaining an advantage.

Going through the Angst of the teen years at an all-girl school, said some teen-agers at Beverly Hills High, might be detrimental in the long run.


Public school, said Sara Myers, 18, editor of the campus newspaper, “is the real world.”

“What 16-year-old doesn’t feel uncomfortable around guys?,” she asked. “Unless you learn how to be proud of who you are in front of everyone--not just girls--then you might never feel truly confident.”

Nevertheless, Donna Baynes, a 1964 graduate of Immaculate Heart, said she emerged from the school confident and prepared to compete with men in college--and she believes her daughter, who recently graduated from the same school, will too.

“There was no question that Immaculate Heart does a fabulous job in developing a young women so she can compete, and she doesn’t have to be reticent or apologetic about pursuing a certain career,” Baynes said.

The basic mission at all-girl schools, educators say, is to help young women develop their raw talents, something they contend public schools should emulate.

Little by little, school districts are paying attention to issues that affect young women. At the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Sex Equity Commission produced brochures and initiated discussions at the middle school and high school levels about sexual harassment.

On a larger scale, the American Assn. of University Women is pushing for Senate approval of the proposed Gender Equity in Education Act, which the House of Representatives passed in April. The act is aimed at achieving equity through federally funded education programs such as teacher training to identify and change the behaviors that contribute to gender bias in the classroom.


Educators say nurturing girls’ interest in science and math and making the campus environment less hostile to young women are lessons that public schools can learn from the all-girl schools.

“Women and men think and develop in similar ways. But really good teaching takes into account the variety of learning styles, regardless of gender,” said Jones of the Marlboro school. “The more the two can dovetail, the better off all our students will be.”