The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall and Surprising Revival of Girls' Schools, by Ilana DeBare (Tarcher, 2004):

The Laptop and the Maypole

It was a drizzly gray afternoon, that time near the end of the school day when kids seem inevitably to start yawning and staring out the window, but inside the eighth-grade science classroom everyone was exhilarated. Eighteen students knelt in small clusters around race cars they had just built out of wood and glue and construction paper, with battery-operated propellers and paper sails and shiny silver CD’s for the wheels. They lined the cars up and raced them against each other to a cacophony of shouts and cheers. “We should rip the seats out, they’re adding too much weight!” one student called out. “Try turning the sail the other way!” another shouted. “Clear the starting line if you’re not racing!” yelled a third who was sprawled on the floor. The sense of joyful chaos was somewhat enhanced by the students’ appearance. They were all wearing pajamas as part of the school’s annual Spirit Week, and some had on fuzzy slippers as well. There were plaid pajamas, moon-and-star pajamas, polar bear pajamas. One student wore pineapple-covered pajamas and had built a car named “The Happy Pineapple.” Its propeller fell off, but someone gave it a shove across the finish line anyway. “Try tilting your sails and see if it makes a difference,” suggested science teacher Jennie Brotman. “Tonight you’re going to read about Newton’s third law. Think about it, and why your cars run differently if you tilt the sails or change the direction of the propeller.”

There were several remarkable things about this scene – the pajamas, certainly, and the engaging, hands-on approach to teaching physics. But perhaps the most unusual was the composition of the class. All eighteen students were girls – girls building the cars, girls shouting out directions, girls sprawling across the floor to demarcate the finish line. The age of the school was also unusual. This was the third year of existence for the Julia Morgan School for Girls, and the first year that the school had included an eighth grade or had taught eighth-grade physics. This particular group of girls had made up Julia Morgan’s opening class of sixth grade students; they grew as the school grew; and soon, when the time came to head off to high school, they would be the stars of the school’s first graduation.

The Julia Morgan School in Oakland, California, is part of a new wave of all-girl schools that opened their doors in the 1990s and early 2000’s. Twenty years ago, girls’ schools seemed headed for extinction, a minor footnote in the broad story of American education. Today they are experiencing a dramatic revival. More than 30 new girls’ schools opened their doors between 1991 and 2001 around the country – not just in the old northeastern cities that had been strongholds of single-sex education, but in booming high-tech centers like Atlanta and Seattle. Enrollment at existing girls’ schools grew by 15 percent, faster than the 12 percent growth rate estimated for all schools. More than six of every ten girls’ schools ended the decade at full enrollment – up from 24 percent at the start of the 90s.

In New York City, the Board of Education opened the first new all-girls public school in more than a century. In Boston, a group of nuns turned an old welfare office into a bustling school for poor and immigrant girls of color. In Silicon Valley, a former Apple Computer executive opened a girls’ middle school focused on math, science and technology. Across the country, coed public schools started experimenting with all-girl math and science classes. Instead of archaic holdovers from another era, girls’ schools were suddenly being viewed as cutting-edge – even trendy.

I was involved in a small part of this process as one of the founders of the Julia Morgan School for Girls. I was an unlikely founder: Before getting involved with Julia Morgan, I had never even set foot in a girls’ school. My own education had been entirely coed, and quite happy. I loved school, did well academically, and had good friends of both genders. As a teenager I thought of girls’ schools – when I thought of them at all, which was rarely – as stuffy and snooty and old-fashioned. If my parents had tried to send me to one, I would have kicked and screamed and wailed.

But as an adult, I became acutely aware of the barriers that women often face in society. When my reporting career led me to cover Silicon Valley, I wondered why all the engineers and CEOs were men. The answer wasn’t just discrimination – it was also that very few young women were coming out of college with the technical knowledge needed for success in the high-tech world. I started thinking about girls’ education, and ways to encourage girls to pursue math and science. Suddenly I remembered moments in my own schooling in a new light – how my 11th grade physics teacher made the girls leave the classroom so he could tell off-color jokes to the boys, how I scored 800 on my math SAT yet no one ever suggested that I take calculus or pursue math in college. How would my own life have been different if I had been encouraged to explore math and science-related careers?

When I had my daughter Rebecca, I started reading books about girls’ development. One of those books, the bestseller Reviving Ophelia by psychologist Mary Pipher, was particularly disturbing. Pipher painted a scary picture of the heightened pressures facing adolescent girls today – pressures to be sexual, sophisticated, and skinny-as-a-supermodel at ever younger ages. One of her points particularly hit home with me. Many parents urge their daughters to stay true to their real selves – to keep playing sports and being smart, to stay away from diets and drugs – but parents are just about the last people that 12- or 13-year-old girls want to hear from. “They model themselves after media stars, not parental ideals,” Pipher wrote.

I began to wonder if it would be possible to create a school that would reinforce those parental messages of “be true to yourself,” a school that would build girls’ self-confidence and help them look critically at the expectations placed upon them by society. Other aspects of an all-girls’ school also intrigued me. I again thought about my own high school education, where boys and girls quietly drifted into stereotypical roles: Boys were the math whizzes and student government leaders, while girls ran the literary magazine and yearbook. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have a school where girls played all the roles – where the jocks, the nerds, the poets, the clowns, the leaders all were girls?

So in late 1996, I found myself sitting with about ten other parents in an Oakland living room to talk about starting an all-girl middle school. My own interest was relatively abstract, since my daughter hadn’t even turned three. But the other parents felt an urgent need to get a school going fast: They had daughters who were in the 3rd or 4th grade, and they feared that the smart, lively children they’d always known were starting to wither. Their daughters were coming home saying that they didn’t like to play sports after school because the boys hogged the field. They were deprecating themselves as being bad at math. Or they were already starting to call themselves fat and talk about diets. These parents wanted a girls’ school to help preserve the active, aspiring spirits they knew and loved – and they wanted that school soon.

So we started a process that, in retrospect, seems a little crazy. None of us were teachers or principals. None of us had huge amounts of money. None of us had ever started a school before. But we held countless meetings to hammer out an educational philosophy. We visited the Castilleja School, a century-old girls’ school in Palo Alto, to make sure we really liked the idea of a girls’ school. (We did.) We organized community gatherings in churches and libraries, and we ran around town taping up leaflets on telephone poles to let people know about the meetings. We drew up bylaws and other legal documents, and we spent months driving around looking for potential school sites. Eventually chance brought us together with someone who could turn our visions into reality – an educator named Ann Clarke who had nearly 30 years of teaching experience, who had recently been an administrator at a girls’ school in San Francisco, and who had a magical ability to communicate with girls and understand their needs.

As we described our vision during all those community meetings, we radiated confidence and energy. People were impressed with how well organized we seemed. But deep inside, I had a number of questions about what we were doing. I kept remembering my childhood stereotype of girls’ schools -- stuffy institutions that made you wear little plaid uniforms, that tried to mold you into being a “lady,” that were run by grim-faced old biddies who didn’t know how to have fun. I was pretty sure that girls’ schools didn’t make their students wear white gloves or serve tea anymore, but that picture still lingered.

Our 1990s vision for the Julia Morgan School seemed 180 degrees away from those old images. Instead of spooning sugar into tea, we wanted our students to measure chemical compounds into glass beakers. Instead of white gloves, we envisioned them running around in muddy soccer cleats. What was the connection, I wondered, between the old stereotypes and our new vision? What had girls’ schools really been like in the past? Had they played a progressive role of opening broad new doors for young women, or did they play a more conservative role of channeling them into narrow, traditionally feminine niches? Had they helped girls, or held girls back? Underneath these questions lay an even bigger one: Were we doing the right thing by trying to start a single-sex school in the 1990s?

As Julia Morgan inched closer to opening, I found myself thinking more about these questions than about any of the articles I was writing for my job as a newspaper reporter. This book is the result of my search for answers. I visited dozens of schools, from the 180-year old Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y. to the brand-new Atlanta Girls’ School, which opened a year after Julia Morgan did. I met with scores of teachers, students, administrators, and “heads of school,” as headmistresses and headmasters are known in today’s gender-free jargon. I spoke with over two hundred alumnae from the 1920s through the 90s. I read diaries of students at female seminaries in the mid-1800s, amazed at how similar they sounded to the words of girls today.

What I found was a rich history of girls’ schools that had largely been overlooked and under-appreciated. Contrary to the white-glove stereotype, girls’ schools had radical roots. They were the first institutions in America to take women’s minds seriously and to insist that girls could learn anything that boys could. They broke down countless educational barriers for young women – teaching “male” subjects like geometry and Greek, cultivating girls’ physical and athletic selves, and preparing young women for college when that was still seen as a strange and dangerous idea. Their founders and headmistresses were models of smart, independent, and powerful women – women who today would be CEOs or college presidents. At the same time, there was a thick thread of conservatism running through the history of girls’ schools. Parents often chose girls’ schools to shelter their daughters rather than to challenge them. Catering to wealthy families, most independent girls’ schools prided themselves for a long time on their social exclusivity – no Jews, Catholics, or girls of color need apply. They channeled their students into traditional roles of wife, mother, hostess and volunteer. They gave girls a superb education but told them to use it only as polite ladies.

The late 1960s and 1970s turned out to be a watershed for girls’ schools, a near- death experience from which they emerged with a renewed sense of purpose. The social ferment and student rebellions of that era challenged the complacent, cloistered tradition of many girls’ schools. And the spread of coeducation forced many schools to question the very reason for their existence. One after another, the country’s most prestigious male schools and colleges started admitting women – creating both an admissions crisis and an identity crisis for girls’ schools. If girls could go to Andover and Exeter, was there still a need for a Miss Porter’s or a Miss Hall’s? If the local Jesuit high school started accepting girls, was there still a need for a Catholic girls’ high school? Scores of girls’ schools went coed or closed their doors. By the 1980s, the number of all-girl high schools had fallen from a peak of 1,132 to about 500. The number of girls’ elementary schools had fallen from 399 to less than 200. There were only two public girls’ schools left in the entire United States, the Philadelphia High School for Girls and Western High School in Baltimore.

Those schools that survived ended up redefining themselves in ways that brought them closer to their radical roots than they’d been in decades. Schools set their sights on preparing girls to be leaders – to be astronauts, senators, CEOs. They incorporated new research on girls’ development by people like feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan. They developed curricula to help girls understand their own bodies and sexuality, and they focused on areas like math and science where coed schools seemed to be failing girls. Schools that used to discourage girls from attending college started vying to get their seniors into Harvard and Yale. Schools that were once all-white, all-Protestant enclaves boasted about the diversity of their student body. Schools that used to limit their curriculum to “feminine” subjects like English, French, and art history spent millions of dollars on new computer labs and science centers.

From New England boarding schools to California Catholic schools, the mantra of “etiquette” was replaced with “entrepreneurship.”

No one “finished” girls anymore. They now “empowered” girls.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s, American society suddenly plunged into the biggest debate over girls’ education and development in more than a century. The American Association of University Women issued a high-profile report charging that coed public schools were “shortchanging” girls. Reviving Ophelia spawned a whole genre of books analyzing the psychological challenges facing adolescent girls. By then, girls’ schools were ready to go on the offensive and promote themselves as a positive alternative – even a national model – for helping young women grow and learn.

Girls’ schools started drawing more applicants, and new kinds of applicants. Families had long chosen girls’ schools for reasons of tradition – Mother, Grandmother and Great-Grandmother had all gone to the same school. But now families were applying who had no tradition of single-sex schooling or even of private schooling. Our founding group at Julia Morgan was a case in point. None of us had a family history of attending girls’ schools; most of us had grown up completely in the public school system. But we believed that a girls’ school would be the best thing for our daughters, and we were willing to put in the time and energy to make it happen.

Girls’ schools today have attracted some unlikely bedfellows as supporters. Backers of girls’ schools include staunch conservatives – traditionalists who see single-sex education as a way to shelter their daughters from boys, sexuality, and general rebelliousness. They also include left-leaning feminists who see girls’ schools as a kind of consciousness-raising institution, a place to help girls gain the self-confidence and skills to stand up for themselves in the larger world. Diane Ravitch, the former Republican assistant secretary of education, is an advocate of girls’ schools. So is Susan Estrich, the campaign manager for former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. And Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison teamed up with none other than Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2001 to sponsor federal legislation allowing the creation of new public single-sex schools.

Girls’ schools also have some unlikely opponents. In a battle that left many feminists shaking their heads, the National Organization of Women filed a sex-discrimination complaint against the new public girls’ school that opened in Harlem in the mid-‘90s. Meanwhile, some liberals fear that endorsing single-sex schools will indirectly undermine public education, by giving ammunition to voucher advocates who want the government to subsidize private school attendance for poor families. The American Association of University Women is perhaps the most visible example of the liberal, feminist opposition to girls’ schools. The AAUW helped fuel today’s demand for girls’ schools with its landmark 1992 report on sex bias in coed classrooms. But – fearful of the political implications of endorsing single-sex public schools – the AAUW issued another report in 1998 slamming single-sex education as no better for girls than coeducation. “Separating by sex is not the solution to gender inequity in education," said Maggie Ford, President of the AAUW Educational Foundation.

The political debate over girls’ schools is mirrored by a debate among academic researchers. Some prominent scholars claim that single-sex education is better for girls, but others say it isn’t. And what is “better,” when it comes to schooling? Do you measure a good education by looking at students’ test scores? By the number of Ivy League acceptances? The number of graduates who are prominent enough to be listed in Who’s Who? Or by less empirical criteria – such as graduates’ self-esteem, creativity, or happiness?

As I talked with girls’ school alumnae around the country, I heard stories of pain from women who had been trapped in rigid schools that gave them no room to spread their wings. I also heard stories of deep gratitude for teachers who gave girls a passion for Shakespeare or geometry, and for schools that gave girls a lifelong sense that they could master any challenge. I found instances of great change, where schools that once taught girls how to curtsey now teach them AP calculus. I also found things that stayed the same, such as cultures that encourage friendship rather than rivalry among women.

One of my trips took me to Chattanooga, Tenn., home of Girls Preparatory School, a nearly 100-year-old private school with 750 girls in grades six through twelve. GPS is in many ways the embodiment of the modern, well-off suburban private school. It has a large, grassy campus on a hill overlooking the Tennessee River and downtown Chattanooga. It has two gyms, a pool, a 28,000-book library and a 3,000-square-foot weight training center. On a typical day, you would find 12th graders engrossed in AP physics and chemistry classes, and 7th graders toting wireless laptop computers from class to class.

But May 3, 2000, when I visited, was not a typical day. At 8:55 a.m., florist vans started arriving and unloading elaborate bouquets of flowers. Teachers taped up brown butcher paper over the doors and windows of one corridor to create a secluded dressing area. Senior girls crowded inside carrying long bridesmaid-style pastel gowns. Their mothers bustled around, styling hair and applying make-up, and arranging the bouquets – by now more than a hundred of them, their fragrance overwhelming -- in alphabetical order in a small conference room.

Parents and grandparents and siblings and boyfriends arrived and filled the folding chairs that had been set up in the grassy quadrangle. They wore visors saying “May Day 2000” and waved paper fans with a “May Day” logo against the humid, overcast, 80-degree heat.

The ceremony began around 2 o’clock. To a slow, trumpet-filled processional, the seniors filed into the quad with their long dresses and bouquets. They stopped at the top of a small flight of stairs; each girl was introduced as Miss ----, then as the crowd applauded she walked slowly down the stairs, her head erect and gaze forward, circled the quad, and took her place among several rows of chairs. Girl after girl made the rounds; then came the May Day Committee; then the Secretary of May Day; then the May Day Court -- a crown bearer, a scepter bearer, and a maid of honor in a light aqua dress with an aqua ribbon in her hair. Finally the entire crowd rose as the May Queen herself made her entrance in a white gown with a train that stretched for about 12 feet, carried by two train bearers. The queen was presented with her crown and scepter; the other seniors all curtseyed to her, and she sat down. All in all, the procession into the quad took about 35 minutes. Then the Queen and the other seniors and the audience watched as the younger GPS girls performed a series of dances, from a modern one with 8th graders dressed as laptops and computer viruses to a more traditional one in which 10th graders in white tunics and braids dipped and twirled around May poles holding pink and yellow and light blue ribbons.

This was May Day at a modern girls’ school – a 19th century ritual carried on by 21st century young women, a strand of Victorian fantasy amidst the AP classes and track meets and college application pressures. Eighty years ago, May Day ceremonies were common at girls’ schools and women’s colleges throughout the country. Today GPS is almost alone in continuing the full-blown ritual with poles, dancers, a May Queen and her court.

May Day at GPS is not without its critics. Some teachers – especially the men, and newcomers from the north – feel that its focus on traditional feminine demeanor and appearance is undercutting their efforts to raise strong, independent young women. “It’s another example of how we give two messages – be smart and competitive, but be submissive,” said Keith Sanders, a chemistry teacher. “I was appalled by May Day when I first came here,” said Jessica Good, a northerner who heads the English department. “The girls turn to us to see what’s important. And we put many more hours into May Day preparation than we do into AP preparation at the final hours.”

But the girls themselves love May Day. In fact, most say that if they could invite a friend or relative to attend one event at the school, they would choose May Day over their own graduation. To them, May Day is a chance for each senior to be in the spotlight – all of them, not just the star athletes or student council leaders or National Merit finalists. It’s also just plain fun. “You get to play dress-up. It’s queen-for-a-day,” said student Mary Cady Exum. “It’s a celebration of the seniors and what we’ve been through,” said Rebecca Steele, a member of the May court.

With its laptops and its May poles, GPS embodies the rich but contradictory history of girls’ schools in America. There were times like the early 1800s when girls’ schools played a leading role in shaping and broadening society’s expectations of women. There were other times when girls’ schools were mostly reactive and simply reflected whatever society thought women should be doing – whether that was learning needlepoint, preparing for college, or preparing to marry a successful businessman. Today, women’s roles are in flux. Women can enter almost any profession and compete in almost any arena. We have female bankers, female engineers, and female surgeons. Yet women are still expected to be responsible for home-making and child-rearing, and are often left with wrenching private choices between family and career. Girls’ roles are in flux too. Girls are told that they can be anything from a scientist to a soccer star – yet pressures to be sexy and attractive descend upon them at younger and younger ages.

Girls’ schools today are trying to sift through these mixed messages and give girls a coherent, affirming vision of themselves and their future. The women’s movement of the 1960s nearly killed girls’ schools by opening up male schools and colleges, but it also gave girls’ schools a new lease on life by drawing public attention to the barriers and challenges confronting girls and women. Girls’ schools today face their biggest opportunity since those pioneering days of the early 1800s. As single-sex institutions, they can focus resources and attention on the developmental issues of girls in a way that would be difficult for individual parents or coeducational schools. They can be laboratories for helping girls grow in this era of flux and transition.

Some schools today are confronting these issues of girls’ growth in conscious and creative ways through leadership training programs, “life studies” curricula, or other such initiatives. Others are flying more on auto-pilot, counting on school traditions or the simple fact of an all-female environment to help girls become healthy women. This book focuses on the commonalities among girls’ schools, but it’s important to remember that there are also big differences. There are good schools and bad schools among girls’ schools, like anywhere else; there are innovative schools and traditional schools. Different schools pay different amounts of attention to the single-sex part of their mission.

GPS students cherish their May Day ritual. At Julia Morgan, our little group of founders would have jumped off the Bay Bridge sooner than have students parade around in expensive dresses and elect a May Queen. Despite their differences, what GPS and Julia Morgan have in common is a commitment to put girls first in a world that still, all too often, puts them second. That’s an unusual and precious commodity. It’s a real gift for our daughters. This book recounts what it was like for us trying to start a girls’ school from scratch in the 1990s. And it explores the gifts that other girls’ schools – the forerunners of our brand-new Julia Morgan School – have provided to young women over the past 200 years.

Back to the Home Page