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Single-sex schools have many benefits

Q: What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of going to an all-boys or all-girls high school?

J. Sills,
Milton, MA

A: I approach your question with a disclaimer: I offer just one perspective. An alumnus of the all-boys Boston College High School, I have taught on that same campus for more than a decade. I also have taught in coed classrooms for five summers.

That said, I believe that the pros of single-sex education outweigh the cons. The key benefit: One less major distraction means students will spend more time thinking about academics.

Most students at a single-sex high school are more at ease than they would be on a coed campus because they don't have to deal with a social soap opera day in and day out. The morning's preparation for school can be just that, preparation for school, rather than a careful, fretful attempt "to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet" -- to borrow a line from a T. S. Eliot poem. Yes, appearance matters, but clothing, hair, and cellphone model place a distant second to the content of a student's book bag.

More important, that ease extends to the classroom, where students feel free to take chances with their ideas and disregard stereotypes that yolk sex to a particular subject or interest. Freed for a while from the critical gaze -- real or imagined -- of the opposite sex and the exhausting games between the sexes, young women and men have the latitude to discover their character and develop their intellect.

Peer pressure on a single-sex campus can be every bit as intense or daunting as at a coed high school. Yet, I've found that students here quickly see through the charade of cafeteria politics and self-declared "in" crowds. They soon realize that popularity does not always translate to friendship and that academic accomplishment can trump weekend heroics on the social front.

The absence of the other sex's voice and views in the classroom presents the major con of single-sex education. Our reading and discussion of literature in my classes at Boston College High often feel incomplete. What would a freshman girl say in response to the boy who does not question why Penelope waited decades for Odysseus's return in Homer's "Odyssey"? What would a coed class make of Chaucer's Wife of Bath? And that's only literature. What a loss not to hear young men as well as young women weigh in on war, the right to vote, separation of church and state, the human genome, etc.

That loss is often mitigated during college years in a coed classroom on a coed campus. That transition can be jarring for alumni of a single-sex high school. But if their high school taught the values of openness and scholarship, those four years will prove as fruitful as the ones preceding them.

Q: As a junior in high school, should I start looking at colleges now? If I'm interested in playing a sport in college, should I contact the coach?

N.O.,
Randolph, MA

A: Yes, you should begin the process of identifying the colleges and universities you are interested in attending. Speak with family, teachers, and guidance counselors to work out the criteria for your college search: large or small, rural or urban, near or far, liberal arts or specific program, private or public, etc.

Give some thought to where you want to rank athletics among your criteria. Have an honest discussion with someone you trust about where and how a particular sport fits into your future. Even the most talented athletes have to contend with the threat of injury, which can necessitate a Plan B.

I recommend using your athletic ability and promise to complement your college application profile. Yes, feel free to contact the coaches at the colleges that interest you; enlist their support. Let sports help create the best academic opportunity possible. Don't fret about which division you will play in; the quality of the classroom matters more than the division banner above the field, rink, or court. Athletic talent has a way of being discovered, just as a solid education has a way of giving for a lifetime.

Ron Fletcher teaches English at Boston College High School. To submit a question, e-mail asktheteacher@globe.com. Include your name, town, and e-mail address. Questions, at reader's request, can be printed anonymously.

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