Separate Is Sometimes Better: A case study of a single-sex Catholic high school

When 2002 began, there were in the United States approximately 86,000 public schools, elementary and secondary. But from sea to shining sea, according to a count made by the Brighter Choice Foundation in Albany, N.Y., only 11 of these schools qualified for the rather clunky label “single-sex public schools.” All 11 are small, and until January of last year a federal law threatened their existence.



The public school landscape did not always look this way. Before World War II, public school systems in big cities often had a few all-boys or all-girls high schools that were large and select—were, indeed, flagships like Boston’s Latin schools or the De Witt Clinton and Julia Richmond high schools in New York City.

For the past 30 years, however, single-sex public schools have been judged by nervous administrators to violate a properly strict interpretation of the anti-discrimination rule laid down by Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. This is the title that is famous or infamous, depending upon the commentator’s viewpoint, for requiring colleges and universities to provide equal financing for men’s and women’s athletics if they want to be eligible for federal money.

Doctrinaire civil libertarians and militant feminists think this strict interpretation of Title IX is exactly right. They believe separate classes for boys and for girls amount to discrimination on the basis of sex or perpetuate sexual stereotypes.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Texas Republican, has a more spacious outlook. She thinks single-sex schools, whether public or private, have their place and do not necessarily damage the ideal of equality. “Many boys,” she once said, “do better in a single-sex atmosphere without the extraneous distractions of girls. Similarly, many girls do better, especially in terms of speaking up and being assertive, without the extraneous distraction of boys.”

The senator was not making that up. She could have pointed to a scholarly survey, Cornelius Riordan’s Girls and Boys in School: Together or Separate? (1990). Since that study appeared, Mr. Riordan, a professor of sociology at Providence College in Rhode Island, has become a frequently cited authority on single-sex schools. For instance, when the Virginia Military Institute was arguing in federal courts that it shouldn’t be forced to admit women (an argument it lost in the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1996), Professor Riordan contributed a featured essay on single-gender schools to the Feb. 23, 1994, issue of Education Week.

He remarked in that article that single-sex schools are not for everyone, but he also said flatly: “Single-gender schools generally are more effective academically than coeducational schools. This is true at all levels of school from elementary to higher education. Over the past decade, the data consistently and persistently confirm this hard-to-accept educational fact.”

Senator Hutchinson accepts that fact, and in the autumn of 2001 she was able to loosen Title IX up a bit when Congress was putting together the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. When President Bush signed this massive bill on Jan. 8, 2002, it had tucked into it a provision that Senator Hutchinson had initiated. In taking that step, the conservative Texas senator had the support of New York’s liberal Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a 1969 graduate of Wellesley, a college for women.

Much to the chagrin of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women, the provision Senator Hutchinson sponsored allows the Department of Education not only to cease menacing single-sex public schools but actually to encourage them.

Last May, the department announced that it would be doing just that. For school districts that want to experiment with single-sex classes, there is even a modest purse—$3 million of federal grant money for which they can apply. “It is one more option we think ought to be made available to parents” said Brian W. Jones, the Education Department’s general counsel.

That is, of course, an option that has long been available in the private sector for upscale families who can afford upscale tuition fees. But according to Cornelius Riordan, the children of well-to-do families are not the ones that benefit most from single-sex schooling. “Research has demonstrated,” he wrote in that Education Week article, “that the effects of single-gender schools are greatest among students who have been disadvantaged historically—females and racial/ethnic/religious minorities (both males and females).”

A good many middle- and low-income parents of children in those historically disadvantaged groups have reached Professor Riordan’s conclusion without having heard of the research. They make real sacrifices to send their sons and daughters to private schools that enroll only boys or only girls precisely because they are convinced from their own observation that these schools provide a better education than the public system does. It is the quality of education they have first in mind, not the absence of those extraneous distractions that Senator Hutchinson noted.

In inner cities, a number of private single-sex schools are Catholic schools that not only survive but flourish despite a continual struggle to balance their budget. In the Archdiocese of New York, for instance, which includes three of the city’s five boroughs as well as seven suburban counties, there are 54 high schools—25 for girls only, 15 for boys only and 14 coed. In the Brooklyn Diocese, which is made up of the city’s other two boroughs, there are 20 high schools—eight for girls, four for boys and eight coed.

Comparative costs are instructive here. In the year 2000 the New York City public school system spent $10,469 per child; the suburbs next door spent $13,960. At Notre Dame School, a college-preparatory school for girls in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, tuition then was $5,125. Schools with fees like this are the ones that non-affluent families can afford—with considerable effort and the help of scholarships.

This is not the first time that America readers have heard of Notre Dame School (see “Convent School,” 4/1/89), but it is worth revisiting because it can be taken as a particular case from which it is possible to intuit certain general characteristics of a type, the Catholic high school for girls. Of course, there are other types of single-sex private schools: schools for boys, nondenominational schools and schools with religious affiliations other than Catholic. Notre Dame is representative of what used to be called convent schools. Today their faculties are mostly lay, but they are still schools that aim to educate both intelligence and character and that try to synthesize the Gospel with the best of secular culture.

Besides being representative, Notre Dame is also distinctive. It has, as all good schools do, a history and a flavor of its own. In Manhattan, there are some well-known nondenominational schools for girls—Brearley, Chapin and Spence. They are much more expensive than Notre Dame—current tuition at Chapin is more than $20,000—but their educational heritage is not nearly as old or as rich.

Most Catholic schools for girls trace their tradition back to pioneering women who during the past six centuries in Europe and the Americas founded orders and congregations dedicated particularly to the education of girls. One of these foundresses was a French woman with a jaw-breaking surname—Anne de Xainctonge. She was born in Dijon in 1567 and died at Dôle when she was 53. From the brief entry about her in The New Catholic Encyclopedia it is clear that she was an innovator, who ought to be better known than she is.

At a time when girls received only minimal schooling and were often managing households when they were 12, Anne’s father gave his daughter as full an education as the best provided for boys. Anne in turn, when she was 39, started a community of women to give girls an education that matched what Jesuit schools were offering boys. This community, originally called Sisters of St. Ursula of the Blessed Virgin (and not to be confused with the Ursulines founded by St. Angela Merici) was itself a breaker of molds. Although the sisters took religious vows, they were not enclosed. They formed the first noncloistered teaching congregation in the Catholic Church. Moreover, according to a phrase that is presumably Anne’s, their schools were to “embrace rich and poor with the same love.”

Today the Sisters of St. Ursula constitute a federation of seven small congregations that have a total of about 1,000 members worldwide. Some 35 of these sisters are Americans; they work in the northeastern United States. And what form, one may ask, has Anne de Xainctonge’s inspiration taken nearly four centuries later and a world away?

The U.S. chapter of its story began in 1901, when three of the sisters landed in New York City with only $20 in their possession. They had been forced out of France by the laicizing Waldeck-Rousseau laws earlier that year. The sisters found teaching jobs in the parochial school of Our Lady of Lourdes on West 144th Street in Manhattan. In 1912, they started a small academy for girls within the convent itself—chez nous, or “at our house,” as they said.

That phrase became the motto of what was known at first as the Academy of Our Lady of Lourdes. The school changed its name to Notre Dame when at the beginning of the 1943/44 academic year it moved to two handsome brownstones on West 79th Street. It had 193 students when in the fall of 1988 the Sisters of St. Ursula decided they no longer had the personnel and resources needed to maintain Notre Dame. It was announced that the school would be closed, but in fact that did not happen. Through the cooperative efforts of parents, alumnae and friends it changed its legal structure and its location.

Mary Dolan, S.U., the principal, and John R. Joven, the assistant principal, provided invincibly resourceful and cheerful leadership. A board of directors, most of them lay people, was formed, and it leased a three-story, redbrick building on St. Mark’s Place in the neighborhood known as the East Village. This had once housed St. Stanislaus, a parochial school that had just been closed because it had too few students.

Without breaking stride, Notre Dame moved into these cramped quarters in September 1989. With Sister Mary Dolan as president and Mr. Joven as principal, it not only continued to attract capable students but even grew a bit. There were 215 students in the 2001/2 academic year.

There could be no more growth, however, without more room. Notre Dame found the additional space it needed when demographic changes forced the closing of another parish school, St. Bernard’s on West 13th Street.

Tourists walking along 13th Street west of Sixth Avenue are pleased to find that for several blocks the street looks the way they have imagined Greenwich Village would look. The sidewalks are shaded by plane trees set in beds of English ivy. There are apartment buildings, to be sure, but also town houses with vest-pocket-size garden plots in front, and there are exotic shops like the Integral Yoga Natural Foods Store that offers “Whole Foods for the Whole Person.”

West of Eighth Avenue the tone is more standard urban than quaint. The block between Eighth and Hudson is dominated by a five-story building with “St. Bernard’s School” in concrete letters halfway up its gray sandstone facade. Since last April this has been Notre Dame’s new home.

Shifting residential patterns made that move possible. St. Bernard’s, built in 1916, was an impressively large school in its early years. In 1920, for instance, it had an enrollment of 1,498 boys and girls taught in separate divisions by a faculty of four de La Salle Brothers, eight Sisters of Charity and 17 lay teachers.

But unlike Notre Dame, which draws its students from many parts of the city, St. Bernard’s was a neighborhood school. When the neighborhood changed, the school’s population shrank. When St. Bernard’s closed in June 2001, it had an enrollment of 235, and all 11 of its teachers were lay people.

After the closing, Notre Dame was able to obtain a long-term lease for the building and planned to move in during the 2001 Christmas recess. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed that. Public School 234 is a few blocks north of ground zero. On Sept. 12 it needed temporary shelter for its 670 students, who ranged from pre-kindergartners to sixth-graders. For nearly six months, these children puffed up St. Bernard’s steep staircases and scuttled along its high-ceilinged corridors.

When those children returned to P.S. 234, Notre Dame was able on April 24 to truck itself from the East Village to the West. Now, for the first time in its 90 years, it has an auditorium/gym, space for both a chapel and a technology center, and plenty of classrooms, each with Internet access.

Enrollment has been discreetly expanded. Notre Dame’s leaders are determined to preserve what they call “the family-like small school atmosphere” they have always had. It is, though, a cosmopolitan family in a cosmopolitan city. Of this year’s 229 students, 54 percent are Latinas, 20 percent are of non-Hispanic white background, 16 percent are African Americans, and 10 percent are Asians. Approximately 74 percent of these students are from Catholic families.

For many years now, every member of every graduating class has gone on to college, and the 53 members of the Class of 2002 are no exception. Moreover, 74 percent of these seniors won college scholarships.

No wonder the atmosphere at the commencement exercises in June 2002, held in the auditorium of New York University’s Law School on Washington Square South, was exhilarated, not to say triumphant. The seniors’ processional had nothing like the style of a daisy chain. The graduates strode purposefully down the aisle in single file while their families applauded rapturously and flashbulbs popped.

Jennifer Fratta, class president, gave the farewell address and exhorted her energetic classmates. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, had changed both them and their world, she said, but “I do not want anyone ever to surrender.” Don’t just talk about trying to do something worthwhile, she cautioned, “simply do it.” She closed with some lines from the popular inspirational speaker, Lee Brown: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you will land among the stars.” Then she wrapped that up with a gloss of her own: “So you see ladies, we cannot lose either way. Congratulations.”

The ladies and their families applauded vigorously. Valentina Morales, the guest speaker, was equally positive but also down-to-earth. Ms. Morales, a member of Notre Dame School’s Class of 1995, went to Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, Wellesley, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. Presumably it was from this experience that she warned the seniors that college will be different.

“There is only one Notre Dame and only one lower East Side of Manhattan,” she said. “People will come up to you and say, ‘I love your accent!’ when you didn’t know you had one.” But, she added, “Never doubt your capabilities, because with fierce determination and a little bit of patience you can do anything.... Make a space for yourself in this world.... Give thanks for the many blessings that have been bestowed upon you. And, please, don’t forget to pray...and before you leave, don’t forget to say thank you.”

Good advice. And if the graduates follow it they might also give thanks for Anne de Xainctonge.

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