Choosing between sending your child to a coeducational institution or a school where all the students are the same sex often means pitting the good qualities of one school against those of another. Parents helping their children choose a high school, for example, often stress earning high grades, participating in extracurricular activities and developing interpersonal skills needed for the real world.
Many single-sex high school administrators say students focus better in class when they aren't distracted by the opposite sex. Coed high school leaders feel students are more likely to graduate with the interpersonal skills they need when the makeup of students in the classroom reflects the nation's population.
De La Salle High School's motto is "because the world is coed," proving the administration believes coed classrooms are vital in preparing students for adulthood.
"Coeducation provides a real-world setting for our students," says Peggy St. John, principal at De La Salle. "It affords them the opportunity to feel comfortable collaborating with members of the opposite sex in academics, extracurricular activities, athletics and cocurricular organizations. We offer diversity in cultural, spiritual, gender and economic areas. Coed offers many facets to the school experience, including a multi-perspective approach to decision-making and an expanded realm of activities and sports."
Dale Smith, associate head of school at Isidore Newman School, says he finds support for coed instruction from across the nation. "In the past year, both The New Yorker and The New York Times published articles citing research by the U.S. Department of Education supporting what we at Newman believe to be true: A coeducational environment is optimal for [pre-K to 12th grade] schools.
"The most compelling evidence supporting coeducation at Newman is the rich debate that occurs in our classrooms and common spaces, discussions where girls and boys express their thoughts and perspectives with confidence and poise. The skills and life lessons that Newman students gain in a rigorous coeducational environment ensure our students are prepared for college and beyond."
Single-sex high schools argue their students don't miss out on learning interpersonal skills; they have plenty of opportunities to interact with the opposite sex outside the classroom.
"All you have to do is have a [large] boys' school and the girls come, same thing with the girls' schools where the boys always go," says Joseph Serio, advancement director at Archbishop Rummel High School. "So our boys never have a problem with meeting girls, because they are always around school."
Yvonne Hrapman, principal at all-girls Cabrini High School, adds that girls and boys are communicating more outside of school due to the popularity of social media. "Up until the time school starts in the morning and when it's done in the afternoon, [students are] interacting with boys," she says. "There's a strong unit of kids from across the schools that interact on the weekends socially, through Facebook [and] all the ways teens connect now. Our gym is filled with boys in the afternoons when we have volleyball games. It's the same thing with boys' schools, where if the boys have a dance on the weekend, the girls all go."
Providing a fairly distraction-free classroom is part of what consistently has drawn parents and students to single-sex schools. Private schools have offered gender-specific classes for years, but the 2002 No Child Left Behind law cleared the way for their inclusion in public schools, saying it was an "innovative" tool to help boost achievement. The debate over separating the genders in school has been discussed for decades, with single-sex supporters saying separating boys and girls allows teachers to cater to the way each gender learns best and pointing to graduation rates and college attendance by their students as proof the system works. The latest study opposing the practice, "The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling," published in Science last month, asserts that past studies supporting single-sex schools are based on bad science and that segregating the sexes reinforces gender stereotypes. The study, based on analysis of existing research, was written by eight social scientists who founded the nonprofit American Council for CoEducational Schooling.
"For adolescent girls, they feel more confident in their learning environment when it's all-girl," Hrapman says. "Also, boys and girls learn differently. (I'm) not saying that one is better than the other, just saying that they interact and process information differently."
Serio agrees. "We find the benefit is that the students — the boys or the girls — are, I think, more concerned about working in school rather than trying to impress the opposite sex." Another benefit, he says, is that students don't pick clubs and activities based on members' gender.
"When they're coed schools, the girls may take over one organization and the boys would never get involved with all the clubs, all the teams and that," Serio says. "I know at some coed schools, sometimes the girls would get really involved with, [for example], yearbook, so none of the boys would join it."
Serio says tradition often dictates whether a school is single-sex or coed as well as which students attend each type. "New Orleans has a long tradition of single-sex education among the Catholic high schools, and we all continue that tradition," he says.
Pierre DeGruy, director of communications at Jesuit High School, feels the same way. "They have several Jesuit high schools in the country that are coed, and they choose to be coed, but this is how Jesuit of New Orleans was set up in 1847, and it's always been like that," he says.
Rummel was a transition school following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and took in 1,500 students of both genders whose schools had not reopened. St. Augustine High School, St. Mary's Academy and Xavier Prep High School — a coed institution until it moved to all-girls the late 1960s — also merged after Katrina, becoming MAX Academy.
"We had dances and that kind of thing with the whole school," Serio says. "It was our finest moment ... as a school. You had students from all of the girls' schools sitting next to each other, sitting next to girls from their rival schools, and it was the same thing with the boys' schools. It worked out very well and the students loved it."
Students and parents should base their decision about which school to attend on more than just the student body's gender breakdown, DeGruy says.
"Whether the school is single-sex or coed is a nonissue in the students' decision to attend Jesuit and other great schools in the city," he says. "Being at a single-sex school is not a topic of discussion that's on the lips of all the students every day of the week. Our students don't fret over it, and I would have to think that's the same for a girls' school."