- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Students at the Young Women’s College Preparatory school boast that their unique campus gives them more confidence. No boys are around to distract or divide them. Classwork - including advanced math, science and engineering - is the focus.

“It’s pretty funny, honestly,” Fallon Jones, 14, told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1mUw4ku). “If we had boys, these girls would be so insecure about themselves.”

The Houston Independent School District launched single-gender secondary schools three years ago as part of its extensive school-choice portfolio. Supporters applaud the model and point to students’ above-average test scores, but the schools face an unexpected struggle in trying to convince students to stay through high school. Class size has dwindled as the schools approach their first graduating classes in 2015.

The girls’ school in Midtown - currently a sixth- through 11th-grade magnet school - enrolls about 150 sixth-graders a year, but only about 50 girls are planning to stay for their freshman year next year. The first senior class is expected to have about 45 girls.

“It’s less than I’d hoped, but that could change,” Delesa O’Dell-Thomas, principal of the girls’ school, said. “Parents of our eighth-graders are excited and commended us for preparing . those girls who may want a different experience for high school. Our girls got into multiple magnet schools, such as Carnegie, DeBakey and Bellaire.”

The Young Men’s College Preparatory Academy, which had 130 sixth-graders this year, may already be turning the corner as nearly all of its 100 eighth-graders have committed to returning for their freshman year. That’s a big improvement from last year’s freshman class that fell to just 17 students, according to state records. The school started with about 50 sixth-graders.

Up to now, most students on both campuses have opted to return to more traditional settings for high school - campuses with sports and students of the opposite gender.

School leaders suspect the low retention rate is just an early growing pain and are confident that more students who start as sixth-graders will stay through graduation. They say they’re still working to raise community awareness about their existence. Part of the challenge is recruiting the right type of students to the schools - those focused on academics over the traditional high school experience.

“We don’t try to be everybody’s everything,” said Dameion Crook, principal of the boys’ school.

O’Dell-Thomas has several ideas for improving her school’s retention rate, including having girls tour the other six Texas schools that are part of the Foundation of the Education of Young Women. She plans to add more club sports, offer dual-credit classes and create more community-building activities for high school students.

And she plans to hold more activities with the boys at the Young Men’s College Prep.

While both campuses have rigorous advanced curriculums and a private-school feel, there are stark and intentional differences between them.

At the girls’ school, the hum of the water fountain is the only sound in the hallway, despite the fact that more than 500 girls fill the 1925 campus.

Girls are taught to speak up for themselves. They’re exposed to female role models and encouraged to take ownership of their education.

“What’s beautiful about this is the girls can focus on what’s meaningful,” O’Dell-Thomas said. “I hope they understand women as valued. We do have an opinion, they do have a place in the world.”

The girls are usually focused on tasks from the moment they sit down in class, and behavior problems are limited to the squabbles sisters might have. They’re in each other’s business and often talk about their feelings.

At the boys’ school in northeast Houston, sixth-graders participate in an annual race down the main, block-long hall, dubbed the green mile. The fastest boy - who this year finished in 26 seconds - earns the title of the green-mile king.

“We’re not going to punish them for running in the hallways. That’s what boys want to do,” Crook said. “Boys like to blurt out answers. They’re really competitive. We have to figure out how to harness that.”

Among his first steps was adding books to the library about war, history and athletes. Robotics, computer science and jazz music are among the elective courses.

One of the biggest challenges of the single-gender model is creating a campus that caters to male students, Crook said. Educators intuitively reward behaviors where girls typically outperform boys - being quiet, sitting still, paying attention. When boys struggle at traditional campuses, they become bored or disenchanted and frequently check out, Crook said. Their test scores, graduation rates and college-going rates continue to fall behind those of their female peers.

“Distractions, that’s all it is,” said 14-year-old Gregory Foster, shaking his head disapprovingly.

Foster and his classmates appreciate the narrow focus of the academy, where young men wear blazers, ties and loafers.

“I’d rather work hard and make money. The girls are going to come then,” Alan-Michal Youngblood, 15, said with a laugh.

Crook said he struggles to counter a culture that appears to value young men who are aggressive, athletic and promiscuous.

“This is a boy-friendly environment,” he said. “They don’t have to live up to some stereotype. Nobody is challenged to grow up faster than they want to. It’s a safe space. You can cry if you need to.”


Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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