Civil rights activists are questioning the District’s single-sex schools, saying such schools don’t meet certain education requirements and could exclude some LGBTQ students.
Galen Sherwin is a senior attorney at the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Her office has filed about a dozen complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and four lawsuits across the nation challenging the legality of single-sex public schools. Over the past decade, most of those cases reached settlements that prompted single-sex schools to revert to coeducational models, she said.
“[Single-sex education] is definitely not driven by data and outcomes,” Ms. Sherwin said. “I think people are looking for a solution. I think well intended policymakers are desperate for a solution.”
On Monday, the District opened two new single-sex schools in Southeast — the Excel Academy Public School for Girls and the Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys Public Charter School. The city now has three single-sex schools: The Ron Brown College Preparatory High School for boys opened in 2016.
City educators have cited academic achievement gaps between boys and girls, and between white students and students of color, as reasons for establishing single-sex schools. Such schools — like Excel Academy, the District’s first all-girls public school — allow students to focus with fewer distractions and to learn in an atmosphere that better addresses their particular mode of learning, they say.
But Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said that providing a new single-sex public school for girls “does not mitigate our concern” about splitting up genders in the classroom.
She downplayed studies showing that students at single-sex schools often test well and report higher self-esteem than their coed counterparts. Those schools invest in smaller class sizes and mentoring programs that also would aid children in coed schools, she said.
“The success isn’t a result of it being a single-sex school. The success is a result of a big investment in student outcomes,” Ms. Hopkins said in an email. “In this way, DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] is operating on an ‘ends justify the means’ system which doesn’t comply with Title IX or the Constitution.”
The ACLU says that current federal regulations and the Constitution require schools to demonstrate that separating boys and girls resolves an achievement gap. It also says such schools could exclude transgender and nonbinary gender students. Ms. Sherwin said “it’s a concern” to see single-sex education treating what is really a racial problem.
The D.C. attorney general’s office disagrees with the ACLU, telling The Washington Times in a statement that the schools are “constitutional.”
DCPS declined to provide data to justify single-sex instruction.
The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.
The National Girls School Coalition, of which Excel Academy is a member, also disagreed with the ACLU.
“We believe that a school for girls is better than school with girls,” said Megan Murphy, the coalition’s executive director. “I honestly think there’s probably no other time where girls schools are more relevant than they are today.”
However, much of the data supporting single-sex education cited on the coalition’s website is 10 years old and has been challenged by researchers. Ms. Murphy said the coalition is working on three new research projects measuring girls’ career aspirations, interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] and how they describe leadership.
The coalition does have a sizable list of resources and guidelines on including transgender and nonbinary gender youth in all-girls schools. But there is no enforcement mechanism for its 200-plus member schools that span several countries.
The ACLU’s Ms. Hopkins said the exclusion of transgender and nonbinary children is a concern, adding that she worries that data indicate “single-sex models seem to reinforce existing dichotomous gender and sex stereotypes” and what that would mean for LGBTQ youth.
The Mayor’s Office for LGBTQ Affairs said Tuesday in a statement that it is “committed to promoting policies that support inclusion and acceptance, allow residents of all ages to thrive, and advance DC values” and that DCPS will work with LGBTQ youth.
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