A Place Where Girls Can Be All That They Can Be

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mr. Feldman's eighth-grade algebra class has been working on a single problem for close to 10 minutes. It is a difficult problem with several possible answers, but the students are not discouraged.

Can X equal -1? How about +1? If X is zero, then what is its square root?

And . . . isn't that Mozart?

In Abe Feldman's math classes, there is always music. On this bright autumn day, it is Mozart's concerto for clarinet--transposed for bassoon because the clarinet is "simply too shrill" for the study of integers.

"Music makes us smarter," explains Sarah Wallace, 12. "Mr. Feldman believes it. And we believe it too. We're going to try Vivaldi next."

At the Archer School for Girls, the last thing you'll find is a predictable algebra lesson. Or art lesson, or music class, or history discussion.

Here at one of the newest--and, some say, boldest--girls schools of the decade, learning does not always proceed as one might expect. And that, say founders of the 18-month-old middle school, is just as it should be.

What began last fall with 39 girls in a renovated dance studio across from the Pacific Palisades post office has evolved into a plan to install the school in the elegant old Eastern Star mansion in Brentwood and, by 2001, to enroll 450 girls in grades six through 12.

"Archer is riding the crest of a wonderful wave of enthusiasm for girls education," says Meg Moulton, executive director of the Boston-based National Coalition for Girls' Schools. "Until the 1990s, there wasn't such a receptive climate for girls schools. But the flood of research showing how girls--especially those in sixth through eighth grades--can benefit from this experience has brought a welcome shift in focus to the special needs of girls."

Last week, Archer officials announced that coalition president Arlene F. Hogan will become head of Archer in July. Hogan, who has run San Francisco's Hamlin School for the last 13 years, is considered "a visionary leader" in girls education, says Archer parent and co-founder Vicky Shorr.

"The parents and teachers and girls who come here know they're taking a risk on something so new. It's still daring to come to this school. But it turns out such risk-taking can be very good for all of us," Shorr says.

For Patti Meyers, the school's new art teacher, the benefits were immediate. "It's exciting to be in a place where nobody can say, 'But we didn't do it this way last year.' Here, we find our own best ways. We build our own traditions."

Although Archer's curriculum is grounded in the classics--everyone studies Latin, everyone plays chamber music--the school itself is a celebration of single-sex education, of girls, and of the feminist struggle.

Banners for the beleaguered Equal Rights Amendment are proudly displayed in rooms crowded with girls born long after their mothers lost the fight for ratification. Girls First! is Archer's slogan, and its school colors are "ERA green" and "suffragette purple." Archer takes its name from Artemis the Archer, the patron goddess and protector of young women.

As one of very few new girls schools to open in the United States in the last six years, Archer already is attracting hundreds of applications for places in its sixth, seventh and eighth grades and expects interest to grow as the school adds the higher grades one by one.

Although Archer isn't the only girls school in America or the newest--a Harlem school for girls opened in September--its publications boast that it's "the first school founded on the stunning conclusion of the research of the last decade." That conclusion being that girls thrive in girls schools.

If that sounds like treason in this post-feminist age, it is nevertheless grounded in a series of increasingly emphatic academic reports. Starting in 1982 with Harvard sociologist Carol Gilligan's landmark look at the intellectual and emotional development of adolescent girls, "In a Different Voice," to a report from the American Assn. of University Women 10 years later, the message is clear: Girls suffer when they study with boys.

Archer students are well acquainted with many of the reasons girls fare better in girls schools and offer their own histories as cases in point.

For 13-year-old Kate Kang, who joined Archer's new eighth grade this fall, the proof is in math class. Although she was doing poorly in math at her old school, she is, in her own words, "like doing really great in math now. I love it! Like, can you believe it?"

Kang says the size of her public school math class made it difficult for her to get the help she needed to do well last year. "I wasn't really in any rush to raise my hand when [boys] had all the answers to the problems anyway," Kate says. "To tell you the truth, without guys, I think girls can make better grades in all their subjects."

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When the Westside's all-girl Westlake School was folded into the new coed Harvard-Westlake School in 1991, some of the parents sued to stop the merger. The suit failed, but that did not stop a few of those parents from setting out to create a girls school of their own.

With a well-tuned piano (and hearty school song) from legendary songwriters Marilyn and Alan Bergman, leadership from USC's feminist scholar Diane Meehan, and guidance from girls school alums like Shorr and Megan Callaway, Archer opened its doors to its first sixth- and seventh-graders in September 1995.

"We know from all the research that 11-year-old girls are full of confidence, full of self-esteem, full of pure possibility," Meehan says. "But we also know that when they are put in coed classrooms, those bright traits can be easily smothered, even extinguished."

While girls schools were once a privilege of the upper classes--and even today enroll less than 1% of the nation's female students--Archer School was determined from the start to include girls from all social, ethnic and economic backgrounds. Archer's 80-girl student body is multicultural and more than 40% receive financial aid to pay all or part of Archer's $12,000 annual tuition.

Although Archer's new counterpart in New York City offers its students a free education, its public school status has posed other challenges. When public schools offer single-sex opportunities such as the girls-only algebra classes formed by the Ventura Unified School District in 1994, they risk violating Title IX regulations forbidding sex discrimination.

The Women's Leadership School in Harlem has so far avoided discrimination charges by stating that it is open to male applicants. The fact that no boys have yet applied may have something to do with the school's name, says Jadwiga Sebrechts, president of the Women's College Coalition in Washington, D.C.

"I find it extremely revealing that both Archer and the new school in New York have 'girls-only' phrases in their names," Sebrechts says. "This not only says something important about the institution; it also says something about the perception of what the public reception is today to single-sex schools."

The growing popularity of girls schools includes a renewed interest in women's colleges, Sebrechts says. Although the number of women's colleges in the United States peaked at 298 in 1960, more than half the schools ceased to exist as women's institutions between 1968 and 1972.

Today, there are just 82 women's colleges in the nation, but their number has remained steady for almost a decade and about 85% of them report dramatic increases in applications. "In both secondary and higher education, interest in all-female schools has soared," Sebrechts says. And a growing number of coed schools, including the trend-setting Santa Monica College, have created women's schools within their institutions to give women in such majors as chemistry, math and physics "their own place," she adds.

Archer's struggle to have its own place may be a protracted one. Although the school's bid to buy the legendary Eastern Star landmark has made it to escrow, the school's trustees still are fighting for a conditional use permit to convert the gracefully arched retirement home into an educational institution.

Although some area residents fear an increase in traffic in the already congested Sunset Boulevard-Barrington Road neighborhood, the school has pledged to help pay for major improvements at the intersection, including turn lanes and road widening. The school board also has assured neighbors that most of the students will use carpools and buses.

Hazella Bowmani, 12, who came to Archer last year, already spends about 45 minutes each way on an Archer school bus. But the accomplished ventriloquist and future cartoonist says she has no complaints.

"Last year, at my public school, there were 64 kids in a class with just two teachers. It was tough to be seen, or even heard, let alone get any special attention--whether you were a boy or a girl," says the seventh-grader.

"At Archer, if I have a question, my teachers can see me. And here, we're building marionettes in art class. That sure couldn't happen where I was before. But you want to know the best thing about being at a girls school?" Hazella asks. "It's something that's not here--and that would be boys! Boys who tease you and bug you. I do not miss them."

In the Archer science lab one recent school day, the debate over gender difference took a different form.

Two 12-year-olds were picking at the innards of a formaldehyde-soaked earthworm splayed on a plank.

"Geez, how do you tell the male from the female?" wondered one of the junior zoologists. "The brains seem to be the same. . . ."

"No way!" shouted her partner. "Look how teeny this brain is and how big its sex glands are. It's got to be a guy."

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