By Allison Dillon Kimmerle, IECA Associate (NH)
The research is mixed: for every article and study that enumerates the value of coeducation or single-sex education, there is another that refutes it. Times change, schools change, best practices change, but what seems to remain the same are dated perceptions of single-sex education. Tales of the cloistered, single-sex boarding school experience cloud rational thinking. This worries me because that unique opportunity may be the best option for some students, yet it is not always given its due consideration.
The websites of single-sex schools show that they represent a day and boarding option that is loaded with innovation and very positive energy. The sites highlight the daily and long-term value and relevance of their programs not only as a preparation for college but also for life. It is time for us as independent educational consultants (IECs) to become reacquainted with the single-sex schools of today and to bring our client families along with us.
In my admissions career, I was fortunate to work at three different types of schools: all boys, all girls, and coed. In my first job in admissions at an all-girls school, I remember watching the scene carefully to be sure that the school delivered what it promised. And it did. Shy girls did find their voice. Bright girls were admired. Athletic girls were applauded for their efforts on the field. Appearance was not a friendship factor. Girls felt free to try something new simply because it interested them. The faculty, male and female, were sharply attuned to the unique learning styles of girls. And the social life involved more than awkward dances with neighboring boys schools. Every day I saw girls who were thriving, productive, and comfortable in their own skin. And my biggest admissions concern turned out to be without merit: the girls were not lured away by coeducation. They enrolled and they stayed. Everything I promised to families was true.
Years later, I moved into admissions at an all-boys school, and I began that job just as I had at the girls’ school: I watched to be sure that what I said to visiting families was true. And it was. Shy boys became leaders. Trying something new was not judged, no matter what it was. And yes, athletes discovered theatre and their singing voice. Boys came together as brothers and became young men. I observed and then experienced first-hand when I taught that the education of boys has its unique features and considerations. I watched with great pleasure as a new arts complex was connected to a new athletic facility. Talk about a statement. The head of school reinforced the school’s commitment to single-sex education with the declaration, “We know boys.”
Each single-sex school knew its student population very well—how they learned; how they thought; and how they developed physically, emotionally, and socially. They anticipated, planned, awarded, scheduled, reprimanded, and taught with that uniqueness in mind. It was indeed a privilege to watch the growth of each child, even those who attended for only a senior or a postgraduate year. This was not the cloistered experience of old: it was relevant, real, fun, and vibrant.
In conversations with other IECs and many parents about the value of single-sex education, I have been dismayed by the responses I have received. The perception that single-sex schools are anachronistic is still far too prevalent, and references to the unhappy experiences of friends or relatives who attended a single-sex boarding school in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s abound and are perpetuated to this day. Awareness and understanding of what single-sex education offers in the 21st century deserves an update and another chance. It should be seen first-hand too.
Asking whether coed or single-sex education is better is simply about asking what is best for the child. As we explore schools for our secondary school clients, it’s worthwhile to offer variety that demonstrates our understanding that one size does not fit all. Parents who protest a single-sex school at first may welcome the opportunity to explore in person once they have examined a website or two and recognize that a single-sex school is not a rejection of the opposite sex. Not today.
As the new admission year begins, I hope more IECs will visit single-sex schools with an open mind, ready to examine the ways in which those schools create environments where students learn, grow, and thrive.
Allison Dillon Kimmerle, Boarding School Advisor, can be reached at [email protected].