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Carmyn Neely: Success as a Single-Sex School

Ann Richards School Students

Moving from elementary school to middle school, or from middle school to high school, was once a simple process. A counselor, principal, or teacher informed the student which school she would attend when summer ended. And the parents got their daughter (or son) to the right school on a specified day at the end of August. 

No choices.

No decisions.

It’s been a while. Public education long ago parted ways with the one-size-fits-all approach, particularly in urban or suburban school districts that are large enough to design schools focused on particular areas of student interest. We have moved on to science magnets, liberal arts and fine arts academies, performing arts institutes, and single-gender schools.

Schools with curricula, faculty, and programs coordinated to meet the diverse needs of students today are the new normal in public education.

The single-sex model for girls has been around for more than 100 years, mostly in parochial and private schools where they have done remarkable work educating young women. They are a novelty in public education. And an all-girls school is the new kid on the block in the Austin Independent School District — and in other districts in Texas.

Early returns on standardized tests and other metrics of success are more than promising, even as the value of single-sex schools is a subject of contention.

There is an ongoing debate in academe about whether single-sex schools are effective.

But the debate is literally “academic.”

Consider what’s happening in one public education “laboratory” in Austin.  Ten years ago, former Governor Ann Richards and a Dallas philanthropist envisioned a school that would provide the enriched curriculum, high academic standards, and grooming for leadership that remarkable private girls schools such as Hockaday in Dallas have. They both, however, wanted to offer that “college prep” experience to girls in public schools — in particular,  to economically disadvantaged girls.

The result was the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, which has since brought together one of the most diverse student bodies among the district’s 124 campuses. Sixty-three percent of students are Hispanic, 21 percent are white, and 10 percent are African-American.  Fifty-nine percent of the students are also classified as economically disadvantaged (i.e., they qualify for the free and reduced-cost school meal program). And every group is excelling.

Last year the ARS was again designated “exemplary” — the most prestigious rating awarded by the Texas Education Agency. On last year’s TAKS assessment, the standardized testing required in all public schools in Texas, the “Ann Richards girls” were in the 99th percentile in reading, writing, social studies and math, and in the 98th percentile in science. Sixty-five percent of the student body scored at the highest commended level in reading and language arts and 54 percent scored at the commended level in math. And all the students - African American, Hispanic, white, economically disadvantaged - scored at the 95th percentile or higher, across the board.

Scores that Ann Richards and the Dallas philanthropist — neither of whom lived long enough to see the success that came out of their collaboration — would have celebrated.

Standardized testing isn’t the only metric by which success is measured at Ann Richards. The community lives and breathes their mission statement every day:

“The Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders dedicates itself to prepare young women to attend and graduate from college, commit to a healthy and well-balanced lifestyle, lead with courage and compassion, and solve problems creatively and ethically in support of our global community.”

Public education is not a zero-sum game. None of this results in a loss to other schools in the district. The 620 Ann Richards girls, who elect to wake up an hour or two early every morning to board buses in all parts of the city, would be attending other district schools if Ann Richards didn’t exist. In fact, innovations from the Ann Richards School are being exported to single-gender and coed campuses in and beyond the Austin Independent School District. The public is evidently getting a good return on its investment.

In 2013 the school faces the next challenge that is part of its mission the day it opened its doors.  That is that every one of their high school seniors will be accepted into a college or a university. But school-sponsored college trips have been underway for four years so many of the Ann Richards girls can already tell you where they are headed.

Carmyn Neely is the executive director of the Foundation for the Education of Young Women. To learn more about single-sex education, visit www.feyw.org.