Middle School Provides Glimpse of Vision for New All Girls Public Schools

Seeking to encourage more girls to pursue math and science at top caliber levels, the public school system in Los Angeles will try something that has long been the province of private education: the all-girls school.

The envisioned Girls Academic Leadership academy, already dubbed "GALA," will span grades 6-12 and be located on the campus of LA High, which will continue to operate as a traditional co-education school.  GALA will offer a curriculum stressing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, known by the acronym "STEM," and also stress developing leadership qualities.

The greenlight to proceed, with opening in the fall of 2016, was made Tuesday by the Board of Education for the Los Angeles Unified School District.  It also approved another all-girls middle school to be known as the Girls Athletic Leadership School to be located at a site to be determined in the San Ferndando Valley.

Advocates cite academic research that has found that girls in single-sex secondary schools, on average, do better academically.  In elementary school, girls often outperform boys.  It's theorized that in later years, girls fall behind because they are intimidated from competing in the classroom with  more aggressive boys.

The difference is particularly glaring in the STEM workplace, where women are significantly outnumbered by men.

"Some girls really prosper in an all-girls environment," said Liz Hicks, former teacher, now counseling coordinator who has been GALA's prime mover.

However, it had not been considered an option for public schools for decades, since the civil rights court rulings and legislation of the mid-20th century discredited the notion of "separate but equal" educational opportunity.

Changes in federal law enabled the New York public school system to establish the Young Women's Leadership School in East Harlem in the mid-1990s. Others have opened in New York, and in other states as far west as Texas, and Hicks sees those schools as a model.

As a general rule, California's Department of Education still opposes same-sex schools, but under a 2006 legal opinion can issue a waiver in cases where it is demonstrated a population of students has been underserved.

It may be possible to glimpse a preview of the district's petition for a waiver in a written statement issued by LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines.

"It is clear that within our District, our female student poulation is underserved in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics," stated Cortines.  "Not only will this new school help our students discover their potential, think critically and develop imporant intellectual skills, it will also prepare them for college and beyond."

The school board recognizes that with GALA it is stepping into new territory in California.  

"We push the envelope for parent choice and for the schools our students deserve," said School Board member Monica Garcia.

Hicks recounts that, even though she was teaching in public school at the time, she sent her daughters to private schools so that they could benefit from an all-girl enviroment.

"It's not for every girl," said Hicks.  "We wanted to have that option in public schools. It's only been available in private schools till now."

Of LAUSD's more than 600 existing schools, perhaps the closest to the vision for GALA--or at least a half-way step--can be seen at a mid-Wilshire middle school known as the Young Oak Kim Academy (YOKA), founded in 2009 with a STEM curriculum.  It is a co-ed school, but boys and girls are separated into different classrooms offering the same curriculum.

What began as an experiment is proving beneficial for both the girls and the boys, in the view of its academic staff, as well as parents and students.

"They concentrate.  They don't think about the boys or who's sitting next to them," said Dora Favela, mother of an eighth grader named Alicia.

"I don't get distracted as much," Alicia said.

"They don't have to go into that gendera role as in a co-ed environment," said Principal Edward Colacion.

As evidence of enthusiasm for the school's program, Colacion cited an attendance rate of 98 percent.

YOKA draws the majority of its students from neighborhood feeder grammar schools, but about 15-20 percent come from elsewhere in the district, Colacion said.

Initially, YOKA faced criticism from women's organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union, which feared separation of boys and girls would lead to gender stereotyping. Colacion said staff have worked to prevent that on several levels, from a neutral color palette to having instructors teach classes for both boys and girls, and the early skepticism relented.

Alicia Favela, for one, said she would be interested in applying to the new GALA when it opens, though she would have to transfer after her first year of high school.

The plan for GALA is to accept student applications from across the district.   GALA will begin with 100 sixth graders and 100 ninth graders, and then add two new classes per year until all seven grade levels are filled.

How to screen the applications has yet to be determined, said Hicks, who at some point will leave her counseling coordinator opinion to work fulltime on launching the new school.

But what about the boys who YOKA Principal Colacion sees benefitting from same sex classrooms?

"It's a good question," responded Colacion.  "Maybe we'll have to look at the possibility of a single gender boys academy as well."

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