Less than 2 years old, an all-girls science-and-math school in Los Angeles is logging math scores significantly higher than its co-ed counterparts and already has a waiting list of 400 girls hoping to study at one of the state’s only single-sex public schools.
Girls Academic Leadership Academy, a district-run school in Los Angeles Unified that opened in the fall of 2016, saw 54 percent of its 6th-grade girls meet or exceed the state standards on the 2017 Smarter Balanced math test — nearly double the rate for girls districtwide and significantly higher than the statewide average for girls of 37 percent.
In addition, two-thirds of the school’s 9th-grade girls took Advanced Placement biology and nearly all sophomores took Advanced Placement chemistry or Advanced Placement computer science principles.
Because the girls may have been doing well in math before they came to the school, it’s impossible to know the extent to which their test scores are a result of their experiences there. But students and staff are enthusiastic about the results they have achieved so far, and believe that the school’s approach warrants replication.
Principal Elizabeth Hicks, who was the driving force behind the school’s creation in 2016, said she’s seen girls emboldened to participate more in class, raise their hands and ask questions.
“Girls say they’re not intimidated,” she said. “Before, boys might have made fun of them for asking questions in class. Here, they’re more likely to talk, to dig a little deeper. They push each other to go higher. … It’s been an amazing two years.”
Located in the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood of Los Angeles, the school is one of only a handful of all-girls public schools in California and one of only three dozen nationwide. GALA, as it’s called, is free and open to every girl who applies. The school accepts girls not based on their grades or test scores, but on an application in which they explain their interest in science and math and how hard they’re willing to work.
Girls come from throughout the city, some taking three busses to reach campus every day. Nearly 60 percent are from low-income families and its mix of students reflects the diversity of Los Angeles as a whole. Forty-one percent are Latina, a quarter are African-American, 18.5 percent are white, 7 percent are Asian and the rest are a mix.
Ninth-grader Kahlila Williams said she decided to attend the school because at her former school, a co-ed middle school in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles, focusing on academics was hindered by nearly non-stop distractions from her classmates — horsing around in class, talking, interrupting the teacher. And focusing on academics was important: she plans to be a pediatric oncologist someday.
“At my middle school, people were more sarcastic. They didn’t take things seriously. A lot of kids didn’t want to be there and they joked around a lot,” she said. “Here, everyone’s always encouraging you and helping you do your best. … If there’s someone eating lunch alone, people say, ‘Hey, want to eat lunch with me?’ It really feels welcoming here, like everyone has your back.”
Her classmate Jessica Sinnathamby said at her previous school, which was co-ed, boys tended to get more attention from the teachers and classrooms were often too noisy for her to concentrate. Plus, the overall mood on campus was less supportive, she said.
“No one gets bullied or picked on here,” said Jessica, who wants to be a lawyer someday. “It feels really safe here. It’s a good learning environment. You feel comfortable and relaxed and that makes it easier to focus.”
The idea for an all-girls, STEM-focused public school started with Hicks, a longtime teacher and principal in Los Angeles Unified. About five years ago, when her two daughters received scholarships to Marlborough School, a prestigious private girls’ academy in Los Angeles, Hicks was so impressed with the quality of the teaching and the unique campus climate of a girls’ school, that “I started thinking, this is so great, why can’t we offer this to families in L.A. Unified? Why shouldn’t all girls have access to this kind of education?”
She studied girls’ schools around the country and consulted with local science and math professors to create courses that would prepare girls for excelling in math and science in college. Among the innovations the school adopted: a wide array of Advanced Placement courses, with no barriers to enrolling such as prerequisites or teacher recommendations; frequent field trips to meet women math and science professionals in the workplace; and an agreement with a local community college for girls to take art, art history and other electives after school in order to free up more time during the school day for academic subjects.
Another offering that’s common to private girls’ schools is “advisories,” small groups of girls who meet with a teacher several times a week to talk about friendship, respect, family, careers and other issues. Girls stay in the same advisory groups, with the same teacher, throughout their school careers, navigating the ups and downs of adolescence together.
But the idea of a publicly funded all-girls school encountered a few obstacles. One was Title IX, a federal law that prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of gender. To prevent any conflict with Title IX, the California Legislature had to pass a bill that would allow L.A. Unified — and only L.A. Unified — to create single-sex schools. Advocates of single-sex education are working to expand the law so it could apply to all districts.
And not everyone agrees single-sex schools are the answer to the gender achievement gap. In the 1990s California tried funding six single-sex public schools but by the 2000s all had either closed or become co-ed. A Ford Foundation study called the endeavor a failure, saying teachers were poorly trained and the schools in the program often reinforced gender stereotypes, instead of challenging them. The bill to allow same-sex schools in Los Angeles also had opponents, who said it eroded school anti-discrimination laws.
And the research is not definitive on the merits of single-sex education. A 2014 analysis in the Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association, found very little difference between co-ed and single-sex schools, although it said more research is needed into the experiences of low-income girls and girls of color.
But the L.A. Unified school board was ready to take a chance on GALA and other single-sex schools, unanimously approving the plan in 2015. The school opened in 2016 with 6th and 9th grades and in 2017-18 expanded to include 7th and 10th grades. By 2019-20 all grades are expected to be filled, the school enrollment will be 700. Three other single-sex schools have since opened: the New Village Girls Academy, a charter school and two district-run schools: the Girls Athletic Leadership School and Boys Academic Leadership Academy.
Curriculum at girls’ schools doesn’t differ from what’s taught at co-ed schools, but several studies indicate that girls’ schools can have a positive impact on girls’ academic performance, especially in math and science. Graduates of girls’ schools are six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science and technology than girls who graduated from co-ed schools, according to a non-representative survey by the Goodman Research Group Inc., which specializes in evaluating education programs. Students in all-girl private schools are three times more likely to consider careers in engineering, according to a study headed by UCLA education professor Linda Sax.
Megan Murphy, executive director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, said the reason for the edge is the sheer volume of female mentors and role models at girls’ schools.
“Girls take center stage,” she said, referring to girls’ schools generally. “The math team is all girls. The science Olympian is a girl. The student government is all girls. The editor of the newspaper is a girl. Every decision that’s made, is made with girls in mind. … And the results are quite astonishing.”
In the past 30 years, there’s been an increase in new girls’ schools opening nationwide, both public and private. Fifty-six, including five in California, have joined the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools since 1989, bringing the total to 242. Almost 200 of those schools are private or religiously affiliated, but 15 percent are public or charter schools. In all they enroll a tiny fraction of middle school girls.
Mike Matthews, director of curriculum at Katherine Delmar Burke School, a private girls’ school in San Francisco, said he’s noticed a significant difference between co-ed and all-girls classrooms, especially in middle school. In co-ed classes, girls are more susceptible to the cultural stereotype that girls can’t succeed at math or science, he said.
“There’s a big cultural component to it. We expect it to happen. We give permission for it to happen,” said Matthews, who taught middle school science for 15 years. “But at a girls’ school we can create an environment to challenge those stereotypes. Who’s supposed to be in technology, what does a coder look like, what does a scientist look like? Some people think it’s the doctor from ‘Back to the Future.’ At a girls’ school, you can show them that’s not the case. Because every step of the way, we’re breaking down barriers.”