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WRITTEN BY LINDA SHAW
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
In staying separate, girls learn to be equal
On Mega Test day, the next generation of women world leaders arrives at school in their pajamas.
They've studied hard, and some look uneasy, or sleepy, as they sit down at the big, round tables they use instead of desks. But it's difficult to be too nervous when everyone's in plaid flannels, or blue one-piece zip-ups, or pink fluffy slippers. That's the point.
The Mega Test, like many activities here at Seattle Girls' School, has more than one purpose. It's an end-of-term exam, yes. But for these sixth-graders, it's also a lesson in how to handle test anxiety.
That's why the teachers give the exam a name that subtly pokes fun at its high stakes, and why they hype it for weeks. It's why, at the same time, they organize a pajama day and a potluck breakfast to help these 11- and 12-year-olds cope with the pressure.
"Remember, a stressed brain only reacts physically," Rosetta Lee reminds her students as she leads them in big arm circles minutes before the test begins. Across the hall, another teacher psyches up her girls with a chant: "I will succeed. I WILL succeed. I will SUCCEED."
To keep their spirits up, students get a sticker for each section they complete. They put it on a half sheet of yellow paper most pin to their shirts or pants. Mani Hooyman, who's tall and very athletic, pins her paper on her hat so its message rests on her forehead for everyone to see:
"I SURVIVED THE MEGA TEST."
Across the country, more than three dozen girls schools have opened in the past 10 years, including two private middle schools in Seattle: Seattle Girls' School and Lake Washington Girls Middle School, a smaller but growing school in the same neighborhood. Other schools including Thurgood Marshall, a Seattle public elementary organize classes by gender. St. Alphonsus Catholic school plans to do the same in grades 5 through 8 next fall.
More may open now that President Bush has thrown his support behind single-gender options, saying he doesn't think Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination in public schools, should stand in the way.
This is not a universally accepted view; debate swirls, in fact, over whether single-sex schools are a good idea. And, in many ways, statistics show boys need more academic support than girls, given their lower test scores in writing and reading, and higher dropout and discipline rates.
But institutions such as Seattle Girls' School see themselves as places that can preserve even boost girls' self-esteem and confidence, which they say often falters even if girls' grades don't. They hope, by doing so, they'll change another statistic: That women still lag behind men when it comes to salaries and top jobs in the workplace.
The school had just a few dozen sixth-graders last year. Now it has 72 sixth- and seventh-graders, and plans to add fifth- and eighth-graders along with another two-story prefab building over the next two years. "People talk about their girls-school experiences as something they'll never forget," says Sharon Hammel, one of the three founding parents. "Not like (coed) junior high which, in ways, was a time you'd just as soon not remember."
Ambition is expected here. Those who enter must do so at grade level. They should want to work hard and reach high. The staff looks for a mix of ethnicities and family income 44 percent of the students are minorities and about the same percent receive some amount of financial aid to help cover the $12,000 annual tuition and fees. And it looks for students with leadership potential even if the girls don't yet realize they have it. The school's mission is to show them they have what it takes to someday run corporations, organizations, families, governments. And to clear obstacles like test anxiety out of their way.
At break time, the future women leaders of the world rush out of their classrooms to grab snacks from their file drawers (the small school's substitute for lockers). They return with Chee-tos and Skittles and, much less frequently, healthier snacks. They steal classmates' hats for fun, playfully jab friends as they pass, sit down at computers to check e-mail, or bound across the hall to visit friends in other rooms.
Many say they don't miss boys much at all.
"Guys can just be really annoying half of the time. No, they are annoying most of the time," says Natalie Dupille, a sixth-grader who came from the Seattle School District's gifted program at Lowell Elementary.
Annoying is one of the girls' favorite words for boys, but they have others: Disruptive. Distracting. Loud.
"Noooo," says sixth-grader Elana Foster, shaking her beaded braids emphatically. Elana, who runs track, loves Tweety Bird and the color red, says she resented it when boys at her elementary school wouldn't let her into their kickball games, claiming she was too slow. Or when they felt they had to be better than "a girl."
Hey, Kayla, do you miss boys?
Yeah, says Kayla Walker, a striking girl in gray track sweats across the hall.
You're just desperate for a boyfriend, Elana teases.
What are you talking about? I have a boyfriend sor-r-r-ry.
Still, Kayla says she feels more comfortable here.
"At coed schools, you worry about what boys think of you."
Seattle Girls' School, Elana adds, "is like a girls bathroom only bigger and with teachers."
SOME THINK segregating the sexes at school sends girls the wrong message about boys (they're no good for them) and about themselves (they need to be apart from boys to succeed).
Even the National Organization for Women opposes single-sex schools, saying they risk moving backward to the separate and usually unequal education of the past. The American Association of University Women, which published an influential 1992 report titled "How Schools Shortchange Girls," doesn't support them, either.
The AAUW says some girls schools seem to have benefits, but it's not clear that having only one gender is the reason. They point to other factors, including small class size and, in private schools, a hand-picked student body.
Girl-school supporters, however, don't want to wait for scientific proof. They say the anecdotal evidence is clear, and that girls schools turn out self-assured women better prepared than their coed-trained sisters to compete in the coed world.
At Seattle Girls' School, head of school Marja Brandon takes a somewhat middle ground: Girls schools now, but not forever.
"For me, having girls in an all-girl environment is an answer to making sure they don't lose their voices, that they stay strong, involved, all those good things," she says. "But if we do our jobs right, one day we shouldn't need girls schools."
They've met Lin Dunn, former coach of the Seattle Storm. They've cooked with chef-owner Tamara Murphy of Belltown's Brasa restaurant, worked out with women's powerlifting champion Yueh-Chun Chang, and gotten help from Raleigh Bowden, former head of the infectious-disease division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Each girl is assigned a volunteer mentor who visits regularly. And every Wednesday afternoon, the girls meet in groups with a volunteer professional who teaches them about her job and life.
The school's Web site says its curriculum is designed for the "way girls learn best," but Brandon maintains there's nothing about it that wouldn't work just as well for boys.
Girls and boys do learn differently, she says, but it's mostly a matter of timing. Girls develop language skills earlier than boys, for example, and boys typically master spatial skills before girls. Social factors are important as well.
"Boys race to compete, and girls won't shove them out of the way."
Brandon believes everyone learns best by doing. So, in class, the girls mainly do hands-on activities and projects. There are no textbooks. Everyone must do some public speaking.
When Rosetta Lee wants to teach the students about how the body fights infection, they push their tables to the sides of the room and line up to play antibodies, B-cells and killer T-cells. When she asks for volunteers to be germs, the girls jump up and down with their hands in the air.
Once all the parts are assigned, Lee sets them loose: "Here we go. Flow." Everyone starts moving the antibodies in one pattern, germs in another. The noise level rises as antibodies start calling for the phagocyte, which rushes to come eat the invading germs.
One evening after the students have left, Lee says she used to think she was more of a boy-type teacher. In coed classrooms, it was the boys who liked what she liked: Taking things apart, getting their hands dirty. She initially had doubts about working at an all-girls school.
She discovered she was wrong.
"All those things I thought were boy qualities were things that girls didn't get a chance to show me in a coed environment."
She considers the argument that all-girls schools do their students a disservice by sheltering them from the real world. But, she asks, what is real? The societal messages that girls' looks are more important than their brains? That girls shouldn't love math as much as boys?
She sees Seattle Girls' School as a place where girls can build armor to deflect those messages.
IT'S A REGULAR LUNCHTIME meeting of the student council, and the future women leaders of the world are not getting along.
A white council member snaps some kind of curt retort, and the meeting disintegrates. Their teacher returns to start the next class, but decides instead to sit the girls in a circle to take turns expressing their thoughts.
It's an emotional meeting.
I'm not saying Kayla's not a good person or whatever, but there were a whole lot of African-American kids who wanted to be president.
I was never aware that people's ideas weren't getting heard. Say it before it gets so big. I'm sorry if it seems I wasn't listening.
If you have ideas, come to student council. Sit with whites if you want to. Say hi, make friends.
I feel I was being treated differently, and I'm not going to stand by and let that happen.
I really hope no one thinks I'm trying to be racist.
Then the discussion turns to the economic and class issues that chafe below the surface.
When some girls come in with wads of money and new clothes and everything, that makes others feel bad.
It just makes me want to take their stuff and throw it away.
The way they talk they talk like they're better than everybody.
If Bill Gates came in here and showed off all his technology you'd feel sad, too.
Unlike some world leaders, however, the girls agree to keep talking.
The staff views the flare-up as a good lesson, and an ongoing one. After all, women leaders of the world must learn how to deal with conflict.
THE RESEARCH ABOUT the value of girls schools may not be clear, but the girls at Seattle Girls' believe the school has helped them. They say they're more confident, better at math, more at ease speaking in front of a group.
And they have dreams. Big ones.
All this may be at least partly self-fulfilling prophecy after all, it's why they're here. But they credit the school for pushing them further than they might have gone on their own.
"I know what I want to do, and how I want to do it," says Amber McDowell, a formerly shy student with glasses and hair pulled back tight in a short ponytail. She barely said a word last year, but these days her hand is constantly in the air, or cupped around her chin, as she pays close attention.
"I want to be a lawyer, a chef, a hair stylist, a dancer and a psychologist," she says, acknowledging it's a long list. "I'm planning to pursue most of them," she adds. "But if I'm not going to be a professional chef, I'm going to know how to cook like a professional."
Brittany Smith, who loves to draw and talk in wacky voices, wants to be a cartoonist and an engineer the first because she loves it, the second as a "jump-start" dream to the first.
Brittany's mother, Angela, says she was at wit's end last year. Her bright daughter was struggling in a Renton public school; no one seemed able to help. She was ready to try anything.
"These middle years are where girls get lost," she says.
Brittany says she tried to believe she could do the work, but couldn't really convince herself.
Seattle Girls' School has been a challenge its expectations are a lot higher than Brittany's old school. But both Brittany and her mother are very happy she's here.
"I like this school. I really do," Brittany says, beaming.
"See see that smile?" her mother says, nodding toward her daughter. "That's the girl I want to have."
TWO WEEKS AFTER the Mega Test, the sixth-graders are facing another end-of-term challenge. This one, Grand Rounds, is "the culminating event" for their study of the human body. It's an evening activity with an audience of parents, siblings, friends, mentors.
In two of the classrooms, the girls show off multimedia presentations they've created based on their research into topics such as ear infections, diabetes, AIDS, the human senses. In a third room, they read a poem they've written about themselves. The fourth is the dreaded one the place where they face questions from a panel of doctors.
For fun, the girls dress in blue and green hospital scrubs. The doctors, mostly women, wear their white lab coats, some with stethoscopes draped around their necks. The teachers have supplied the doctors with questions the girls should be prepared to answer, but the students don't know what they'll be.
As a group waits in the hall to be introduced, one girl says: "Deep breaths. Deep breaths." They all inhale and swing their arms in big circles.
When Brittany's name is called, she stands up, smiles, and takes the microphone. Her topic is dermatitis. She's asked to describe some of its symptoms.
"Itching and swelling," she says. "Or, um, rashes."
"Another would be. . ."
"Bumps on the skin."
She gets nervous, looks at the ceiling.
But she keeps her composure. "Can you repeat the question again?"
Her teacher cuts in, saying she has already given a good answer. With relief, Brittany sits back down.
Afterward, Lee says she always gets to a point before events like this when she wonders whether they're pushing the girls too hard, expecting too much of students who are only 11 and 12.
But then she questions her doubts. Is it just because it's something she never did? Is it because these are girls? She hasn't yet had a student "disintegrate into 8,000 pieces." Quite the contrary. They emerge stronger.
Linda Shaw is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Taste||Northwest Living||Now & Then|