Vote for all-girls high school has happy ending, for now
Vanessa Romo | April 16, 2015
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The vote to open LA Unified’s first all-girls high school was swift and the motion was passed with no fanfare; it was one of more than two dozen resolutions lumped together, including one to open a similar all-girls charter middle school, that were approved in a single vote by the Los Angeles Unifed school board earlier this week, with virtually no discussion.
But for Elizabeth Hicks, the woman behind the proposal for the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA), who has been fighting to get it open for the past three years, it was a euphoric moment.
“It’s been such a long, arduous journey and I’m just ecstatic,” she told LA School Report. “Relieved and ecstatic.”
“It’s the end of years of uncertainty,” she continued, despite the fact that it’s not a done deal yet. The California State School Board of Education must approve a waiver for the school to open in 2016-17. That board is scheduled to meet in May.
Draft after draft, tweak after tweak, Hicks, a counseling coordinator for the district, has been working on a proposal she hoped would convince the board and other district officials to finally open GALA — a science, technology, engineering, and math school, called STEM — where Hicks says that young women can flourish and develop an unabashed passion for the hard sciences without the distraction/intrusion/judgement of boys. Something she says is difficult to cultivate in co-ed schools.
“The evidence is there,” she says enthusiastically, referring to studies that reveal a sharp decline in test scores on math and science, once girls hit middle school.
The proposal presented data from the California Standards tests showing that girls within LAUSD perform at the same level or above their male peers in math and science through the fifth grade, hovering around 55 percent. But by the time they reach ninth grade, the percentages plummet to about 26 percent of girls reaching proficiency, while boys level off at roughly 30 percent proficient.
The proposal also included anecdotal testimonies from a panel discussion at a National Coalition of Girls School conference in April 2014, during which several former LA Unified school students, all girls, said “that they were not encouraged to go into higher level science and math courses, and that there was limited access to robotics programs.”
The idea for an all-girls middle school and high school has been championed by nearly all school officials who have heard about it over the years, including former Superintendent John Deasy and some sitting school board members. The problem, however, was a legal issue.
For years, the district’s legal team feared that a single-gender girls campus would open up the district to gender discrimination law suits; Why special treatment for girls and not for boys?
It is a point that was brought up by Board Member George McKenna at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
“Has anybody considered a boys’ academy?,” he asked.
“The answer is yes,” Superintendent Ramon Cortines, quickly replied.
In fact, it is one of the reasons the all-girls school finally got the green light.
Back in May of last year, Hicks and her team were told their chances of getting the girls’ school off the ground as one of the district’s pilot schools would improve significantly if they developed a companion all-boys version.
“We were told to make it pretty much identical to our plan for GALA,” she said. Identical with one exception, rather than focus on STEM courses, the boys’ school would place an emphasis on English Language Arts, where they often fall short of girls’ test scores.
The laws around single-sex schools have been difficult to navigate. First they were not allowed, but in recent decades due to changing education pedagogy, the idea of single-sex classrooms gained mass appeal. In the 1990s the feds changed regulations to allow a single sex school as long as they were available to each gender, in other words, if an all-girls school was in the works then an all-boys school had to follow. But in 2006, U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, tried to make it even easier, re-writing the laws again, saying a district may be “permitted to offer a single-sex school to students of one sex if it provides a substantially equal school to students excluded from the single-sex school based on sex, but that school may be either single sex or coeducational.”
According documents submitted by GALA, following the changes in the amendment, the number of public schools offering single gender education has skyrocketed: In 1999, only four public schools in the nation offered single-gender education; by 2014, 850 public single-gender schools were in operation.
The proposal for an all-boys LA Unified school seemed to satisfy the district’s legal concerns and for a moment, Hicks says, it seemed that the school was a shoe-in for approval. Until Superintendent Deasy left the district.
The plan had always been to open GALA as a pilot school, but after Deasy’s abrupt departure, the department responsible for reviewing pilot school applications put a moratorium on new schools and is focusing on what are called conversion schools, traditional public school campuses hoping to try a new model.
“I thought we were dead. For a minute it looked like it was all over,” Hicks recalls.
So she decided to make it personal. Hicks sent an email directly to Deasy’s replacement, Superintendent Cortines.
“I thought, I may as well give it a shot,” she says.
He responded. Immediately and just as personally, with a phone call.
“He said he thought it was an amazing model and that every urban school district should have them,” she said.
Cortines is no stranger to the establishment of a single sex schools. He championed a network of them in New York, called the Young Women Leadership Network, during his tenure as chancellor in New York. It was the model Hicks used in creating GALA.
“It is clear that within our District, our female student population is underserved in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” Cortines said in a statement.
“Not only will this new school help our students discover their potential, think critically and develop important intellectual skills, it will also prepare them for college and beyond,” Cortines said.
LAUSD does have some experience with an all-girls school. The New Village Girls Academy, which is 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.
The standards for GALA will be high.
“It is going to be a very rigorous program and our students, and their families, are really going to have to think if this is the right kind of fit for them,” Hicks said.
While enrollment in the school, which will be located on the campus of Los Angeles High School, will be open to all interested girls in the district, the work-load probably won’t appeal to everybody.
At the high school level, students will be required to take four years of science, four years of math and four years of computer science. They’ll carry seven periods which will include time for additional tutoring should students need it.
“They will all have to make it through,” Hicks said. Then added, “But if they’re struggling we’ll be there for them. We’ve already built-in the support for kids who might have some issues with the curriculum and the rigors.”
Hicks previously ran a similar small school program at Hamilton, that she says had “really high academic standards.” That school had a 100 percent graduation rate.
“We know how to do this and we’re not letting anybody leave because they can’t make it through,” she said.