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All-girls school in LAUSD struggling to escape legal limbo

Vanessa Romo | May 19, 2014

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New Village Girls Academy LAUSD All-girls school

New Village Girls Academy

The problem for girls is boys.

Several years ago Elizabeth Hicks, a counseling coordinator for LA Unified, had an idea, to open the first all-girls traditional public school in California in more than a decade.

It would be a rigorous STEM academy, requiring girls to take science, math and computer classes from sixth grade through high school, and based in one of the district’s neediest neighborhoods. It would be a place where girls would learn and practice social and emotional skills and be encouraged to develop as independent, analytical thinkers — just as her daughter had become at a tony all girls private school.

But that idea, which was formalized into an application for the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) as a district experimental Pilot Schools, has been in legal limbo two years running.

“The stumbling block and the reason we’ve been stymied is the fear that there might be a lawsuit,” a frustrated Hicks told LA School Report.

Despite support from Superintendent John Deasy and at least one school board member, Hicks says, “I believe that the district’s legal department is afraid that we would have a challenge from some outside entity or internal entity that would say, you have to have an all boys school as well.”

That’s not the only problem.

It appears Hicks and a group of eight LA Unified teachers, administrators and data analysts who are behind the effort to launch the new academy have stumbled into a legal hornets nest of conflicting federal, state and local policies on the issue of single sex schools in a public school system.

While the federal government encourages them, the California State Board of Education has adopted regulations saying they are prohibited, except for rare instances in which they can demonstrate serving “students with similar therapeutic and educational needs,” according to a 2006 legal opinion from the Board, which sets policies that the California Department of Education (CDE) carries out.

But CDE officials say school districts have the autonomy to open a single sex school.

“That’s because California is a local control state,” Tina Jung, a CDE spokeswoman, said. “So that means the local education agencies, in this case school districts, have more authority to run their own operations than we do here at the state.”

No one at the state or the California Charter Schools Association could say precisely how many single sex schools are operating in California. One, the 100 Black Men of the Bay Area Community School, a public charter school in Oakland, operated from September 2012 through February of this year, when it closed due to financial problems.

The New Village Girls Academy, believed to be the first all girls school in the state opened as a charter school in Los Angeles in 2006 to provide college preparatory work for girls from underserved urban settings.

Jung said the standing ruling on the issue by the State Board of Education is governed by the 2006 legal memorandum.

“This is the latest document we have and it’s up to date so we’re still following what’s in this memo,” Jung said.

New Village said it was told by the State Board the principal legal barrier to opening a single-gender school is California’s Proposition 209.

Passed by voters in 1996, the law says “the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

However, three months after the legal memo was written, the U.S. Department of Education amended Title IX laws to allow districts to create single-sex schools and classes as long as enrollment is voluntary, eliminating the requirement to demonstrate a specific need.

The only caveat — and this the problem for the Girls Academic Leadership Academy — is that districts launching these schools “must also make coeducational schools and classes of substantially equal quality available for members of the excluded sex.”

The amendments were designed to allow more experimentation in public schools under No Child Left Behind and several states have embraced the opportunity.

New York was the first, establishing the Young Women’s Leadership Network — a network of five schools all girl schools throughout New York City. Texas then launched the Foundation for the Education of Young Women, setting up schools in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Lubbock, and Houston.

Both of these efforts serve middle and high school girls and have impressive academic records. Students at the schools score among the highest on their respective state proficiency exams and the campuses that have expanded to include a senior class  report 100 percent of graduates are accepted into college.

That inspired Hicks and her team at LA Unified to model their pilot school,  GALA, after them.

Hicks says the proposal to start the school has had “no real objections” from the Pilot School Steering Committee or Donna Muncee, who heads LA Unified’s Intensive Support and Instruction.

“Everyone tells us, this is a good idea. That it would be awesome for our girls which data shows take a nose dive in math and science when they hit middle school,” Hicks said.

Data from LA Unified’s 2011-12 state standardized test scores shows the percentage of girls ranked proficient or advanced in science drops from 54 percent in the eighth grade to roughly 27 percent a year later.

That trend continues through high school and on Advanced Placement exams in math and science. Fewer girls than boys take the tests that could earn them college credit, and fewer still achieve a passing score.

Critics dismiss these types of findings as junk science and argue single sex schools reinforce gender stereotypes, and the district may be fearful of lawsuits. Several are in the works.

Earlier this week, for example, the ACLU filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education against Hillsborough County in Florida, saying its single-sex classrooms violate federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in schools receiving public money.

But Hicks says the benefits of the school would outweigh the misgivings. Over the last two years, while waiting for a definitive answer from LA Unified, she has been cultivating potential partnerships.

UCLA’s School of Computer Science, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and the National Center for Women and Technology have expressed interest in developing a curriculum for the school.

She adds, “We have a lot of independent companies that would like to invest. We have a relationship with the National Women in Technology. We’ve made a lot of contacts. We’re ready to launch. We’re ready to provide a lot of resources for the girls. We started to reach out to anybody we could think of and asking, If we launch this will you be a part of it? And we have yet to hear a no,” she said.

But Hicks is running out of patience. She says she’ll give “the pilot thing” one more chance, which would mean GALA, won’t open it’s doors until the 2015-16 school year. After that, she says she’ll consider trying to start the school as a charter.

“It’s just so sad,” she said, “that this this great thing is ready to happen but we’re just waiting.”

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