RALEIGH — In a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place at parochial schools of the past, lines of smartly dressed boys and girls started a new year on Monday in separate schools.
But instead of attending a private school, the students were marking the opening of the Wake County school system’s first two single-sex academies. Demand was high from families attracted by old-fashioned staples such as single-sex education, uniforms, small classes and a focus on leadership.
“I think it’s a good concept to have all girls and all boys. They’re wired differently. I like that they’re going to teach them to be leaders,” said Beronica Cathey of Knightdale, whose 12-year-old son, Malcolm, is a seventh-grader at the male academy.
Parents are also attracted by a distinctive curriculum that allows students to earn up to two years of college credit while getting a high school diploma. The academies will eventually develop partnerships to allow students to attend college campuses to take courses there. A deal to have students take courses at William Peace University in Raleigh fell through earlier this year.
The Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy opened Monday at a campus of temporary classrooms in North Raleigh with plans to eventually relocate to the former Thompson School building near downtown. The Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy opened on the campus of the Governor Morehead School for the Blind near Pullen Park in Raleigh.
The academies had 1,000 applicants for the 300 openings. Both schools hold 150 students split into grades six, seven and nine. The schools will eventually expand to hold grades 6-12 with students spending a fifth year in high school to get more college credit.
Single-sex public schools are rare in this country even though the U.S. Department of Education relaxed rules in 2006 to allow them.
In the 2011-12 school year, the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education said 116 public schools nationally were completely single gender. More typically, the group said 390 co-ed schools offered some single-gender classes.
The research has been mixed, with some studies finding benefits and others finding no difference academically between single-gender and co-ed classes.
Ian Solomon, the principal of the men’s academy, said they can adjust the material to better interest male and female students. For instance, while female students might read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Solomon said the male students might read a similar book written from a male perspective.
The idea for the single-gender schools first became public in September. School board member Keith Sutton, the board’s lone black member, pitched the concept to Superintendent Tony Tata, taking him to see a boys’ school in Chicago, as a way to help improve performance for black students.
Tata noted that both schools are demographically diverse and include a high percentage of students who would be the first in their family to attend college.
The argument against
Progressive groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the Great Schools in Wake Coalition and the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children cautioned Wake against starting the schools. ACLU chapters around the nation have sent warning letters to school districts offering single-sex classes.
“When resources are limited, it seems to make more sense to focus on things that work, like smaller class sizes, more teacher training, increased parental involvement,” said Sarah Preston, policy director for the ACLU of North Carolina.
Preston said the ACLU is continuing to monitor the two schools after reviewing records obtained as part of a public records request. She said they’re concerned that the schools will promote gender stereotypes instead of having teachers focus on the students as individuals.
But students at Wake’s academies and their parents say they have no problem with single-gender schools.
“It will make me less distracted not having girls around,” said Elliot Garcia, 15, a ninth-grader at the male academy.
Ninth-graders Imani Henderson and Tyara Morrison, both 15, said the all-female composition of the school would help them focus and allow for more self-expression to emerge among classmates.
“It’ll bring out things with each other,” said Henderson, who’s looking forward to taking an elective debate course as preparation for earning a law degree later on.
Dressing for school
One of the other things that sets the two schools apart from other Wake schools is their strict student dress requirements. The female academy requires students to wear a uniform with the school’s logo. The male academy requires students to wear ties and white shirts.
“It’s classy,” said Priscilla Hernandez of Raleigh, whose 15-year-old son Elliot is a student. “It makes him look like he’s going to a boys’ private school.”
To mark the first day, welcoming parents and school officials lined a street on the tree-lined campus at the women’s school. They whooped, cheered and rang cowbells as the 150 students who had successfully applied to the school walked two-by-two into the spacious building.
“Each of you is more than capable of meeting the high expectations we have set for you,” Dean of Students Julia Taylor told the female academy’s first class at a morning assembly.
Tata told the girls that he had started at the U.S. Military Academy in the second class to have female students and continued in service as women became generals, as he did. He also noted his admiration for such “tough ladies” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee.
“It is clearly a system that a lot of people want,” school board member Christine Kushner, who turned out to watch the opening festivities, said of the single-sex schools.