The Benefits of Same-Sex Education for Boys

What’s it take to get through to today’s little men? Haverford School alum Michael Bradley heads back to campus to find out.

St. Aloysius Academy fifth-grader Luke Currie. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)When senior Zach Rego donned a nightgown and gray wig last fall to play Aunt Martha in his school’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace, his Haverford School classmates showed up en masse to see the show. And why wouldn’t they? Here was golden opportunity to heckle a versatile athlete in drag.

Granted, Rego took some heat for dressing like a murderous spinster. That’s just what guys do to guys. And yet, when the stage lights came on and Rego hit his first mark, there were no catcalls. “I couldn’t have felt more comfortable,” he says.

Rego graduated from Haverford in June and will attend Georgetown University in the fall. He was a standout in football, lacrosse and wrestling. He sang in the Notables, Haverford’s a cappella singing group, and appeared in several plays. Some might even call him a budding Renaissance man—the perfect product of an all-male environment.

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And he’s fine with that. “I didn’t feel I had to hold myself back,” Rego says. “It was just the guys.”

When Rego arrived at Haverford from St. Aloysius Academy, an all-boys K-8 school, most knew him only as an athlete. They had no idea he’d been singing since second grade. He concedes that, had there been girls on campus, he probably wouldn’t have tried out for the Notables. “Trying to impress girls is distracting,” he says. “I don’t care what guys think, so I never cared about trying something new.”

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Granted, history offers plenty of examples of the negative side of male bonding. But when it comes to education, keeping boys together is an idea that’s gaining renewed traction. “Boys’ schools can balance rules and order and good discipline,”
says Brad Adams, executive director of the Toronto-based International Boys’ School Coalition. “It’s not using their energy as a dangerous force, but using it as something focused in good ways.”

Statistics say that boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to drop out—or flunk out—of school. And males 15-19 are four times more likely to commit suicide than females of the same age group.

From kindergarten through graduate school, girls outperform boys in homework and tests. These days, almost 60 percent of college students are women, and 170,000 more bachelor’s degrees are awarded to females each year. Boys are five times more likely to be classified as hyperactive, and they comprise two-thirds of those in special education classes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 54 boys are diagnosed with symptoms found in the autism spectrum, compared to one in 252 girls.

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As girls have made tremendous educational strides, their male counterparts are backsliding. Some argue it’s because current education methods aren’t working on boys. When they’re younger, natural rambunctious behavior is labeled disruptive. When they’re older, their need to connect with instructors through relational learning often isn’t respected.

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Boys’ schools succeed, advocates say, because they understand the developmental challenges of the gender and specialize in ways to reach them. “So much of contemporary schooling happens to fit the way girls mature, engage and succeed,” says Adams. “So many boys’ schools confound that stereotype.”

Still, Adams understands why the argument for boys’ schools would appear counterintuitive to some. “If you put a group of boys together, isn’t it all going to be about sport?” he poses before dispensing with the notion. “At an all-boys school, students are supported when they step up in community service, leadership, poetry and drama. In a coed school, you have gender stereotypes that don’t help boys.”

But critics reason that, without a steady dose of successful females in their lives, boys will think that gender is incapable of leadership and high achievement. “There’s an enormous benefit to boys having women in leadership roles,” says Catherine Hall, academic dean at Episcopal Academy, a former all-boys school that saw its first coed class graduate in 1984. “Collaboration with girls in an academic setting is helping boys to be better leaders.”

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When I attended the Haverford School in the 1970s, there was something of a Lord of the Flies flavor to the place, with precious few women in the building. Back then, the idea of counselors helping students navigate the treacherous journey from
childhood to manhood was preposterous. 

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But all that’s changed. Expanded research allowed educators to understand how best to get through to boys. “The point is that boys’ schools work,” says Abigail James, who has 30 years of experience in single-sex classrooms.

A teacher, author and speaker, James has found through her research that students at all-boys institutions like school more. “Maybe they’re not for everyone,” she says. “But when they work, they work beautifully.”

Success begins with the belief that it’s important to remove gender bias from the classroom. While, for years, females were told they couldn’t thrive in math and science, boys were expected to leave the arts to the girls. James recalls visiting an all-boys high school and seeing the noseguard on the football team hunkered down over a pottery wheel, making a bud vase for his mother. “In a coed environment, boys don’t often get the chance to cultivate other interests beyond sports,” says Sister Stephen Anne Roderiguez, principal at St. Aloysius in Bryn Mawr. “There’s still a stigma attached to a boy wanting to be involved in certain things.”

Particularly in the younger grades, it’s a safe environment to try things. “They don’t have to pretend they’re someone they’re not,” says Devon Prep principal Father James Shea. “They’re comfortable being themselves.”

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It’s no secret that boys learn and develop differently than girls, particularly in elementary school. Girls are often ahead of their male peers at that point, and they tend to take over the classrooms and social settings. Some say that the popular educational paradigms represent a “feminization” of schools, that Title IX and the feminist movement has tilted the educational focus.

“The [coed] curriculum we see doesn’t work as well for boys as it does for girls,” says Adams of the International Boys’ School Coalition. “It has to do with their maturity as learners.”

By and large, Adams says, really effective boys’ schools have discovered what teaching practices students respond to. “Teachers of boys—if they’re good—will say, ‘This works, and this doesn’t.’ That builds up motivation [in students] and a sense of confidence in school.”

What might appear to some as a lack of control in classrooms at boys’ schools is actually a vigorous learning setting. And even when teachers do keep students engaged and eager, boys—particularly those in the primary grades—have a surplus of energy to burn. They want to be active, to play out all the wild adventures in their brains. Watching a group of kindergarten boys enter a playground from a building at the Haverford School one afternoon was akin to witnessing an explosion. “At earlier ages, boys aren’t as facile with their small motor skills as girls,” says Haverford School headmaster Joseph Cox. “They lag in language arts.”

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By the time they reach middle school, testosterone is coursing through their bodies, causing them to trail girls both physically and emotionally. When they hit high school, boys must be taught empathy and how to access the emotional sides of their lives. It’s not a natural process; it must be cultivated. “They have to find their authentic selves,” Cox says.

Cox argues that, if a boy believes what he’s doing is important, he’ll do it to the best of his ability. It’s up to faculty and administrators to realize that, and develop programs and teaching methods that create interest and a bond that promotes success. “If a girl doesn’t like her teacher, she’s probably a mature enough learner to work through it,” Cox says. “If a boy doesn’t like his teacher, it will mess up his ability to learn.”

St. Aloysius’ Sister Roderiguez uses the term of “scaffolding” to describe how boys can navigate their worlds more successfully. From an early age, girls tend to take the ball and go. Boys often need to feel safe to take a chance. Having strong relationships with their teachers allows them to do that.

Jim Stewart retired from Malvern Prep in June, after spending much of his 42 years there as its head of school and president. His students idolized their teachers and got close enough to them to form bonds that lasted for decades. Since boys encounter their teachers as educators, coaches and counselors, they have unique opportunities to connect. “The attachment of a young man and a male teacher goes a long way,” Stewart says.

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Joseph Cox’s son, Matt, was a pretty good violinist in high school—even if none of his friends knew he played the thing. “He became locked into a more stereotypical male behavior pattern than he would’ve, had he been in an all-male environment,” says the Haverford School headmaster. “He suffered from that during his tours in Iraq.”

Matt followed the lead of his father, a retired colonel, and joined the Army. While serving under a female battalion commander, he began to understand a little more about how he’d been sublimating his nature.

In the boys’ schools of 40 years ago, it was rare to have a woman leading a classroom beyond sixth grade and practically unheard of to have one in an administrative position. That has changed considerably—for good reason. “Misogyny can be a problem,” says researcher and educator Abigail James. “One thing I tell boys’ schools is that they have to have an administrator high up who is a woman. You need women teaching, and the male teachers have to respect them. That’s how boys learn, by watching men do it. They also need to see men work for women.”

Local boys’ schools now recognize this. Thirty percent of Malvern’s faculty is female, and three administrators are women. It’s 30 percent at Devon, too, where there are female deans of the ninth- and 11th-grade classes. Cox reports that 53 percent of Haverford’s entire staff is female, and that includes two deans. In the fall, a woman will be taking over the upper school’s history department.

Administrators also work hard to put boys together with students from girls’ schools in sports, arts and service programs. And they also are facing more unique, 21st-century challenges: Cox mentions the number of gay Haverford students who have come out to their classmates, often before telling their families. About 10 years ago, he received a visit from a pair of seniors—one a top-shelf athlete, the other one of the smartest kids in the school. They were concerned about a gay classmate who was upset by the less-than-tolerant response from the older generation. Their message was direct. “They told me to tell the adults to back off,” Cox recalls. “They were going to take care of him.”

Chances are, they kept their promise. Boys will do that—especially if they’re taught how.

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