The Single Sex Survival Guide
At some schools, it's all about hitting the books, not hitting the opposite sex.
Everyone has that one high school memory that defines his or her educational experience. Mine was the annual DJ Pizza Lunch. Each January, we would have a minimum day class schedule, followed by an outdoor lunch, provided by student government. We would eat greasy pizza as we sat on the grassy tiers that overlooked the semi-circular stage where a disc jockey would spin the trendiest songs, not forgetting old favorites. As the pulsating bass of the music swept across the campus, students made their way to the dance floor waving their arms, dancing hysterically and singing at the top of their lungs. It was just your typical high school dance—minus teenage boys.
For some people, the idea of being surrounded by a sea of teenage girls in plaid uniforms is their ultimate dream realized; for others, it’s a total nightmare. For myself, it was just another day as a student at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora.
There are three basic reactions I get after casually mentioning that I attended St. Lucy’s. The first is positive, usually with a response like, “My co-worker’s daughter goes there,” “Do you know so-and-so? I think they graduated a year ahead of you,” and “I heard the campus is beautiful.” The second reaction raises an eyebrow and conjures up a faint smirk, mostly due to the local stereotype that St. Lucy’s students are either pretentious and/or promiscuous. And the third response, mostly from my peers, is an overall look of shock—eyes pop and mouths drop, as if I endured living in a French prison for four years. “What’s it like going to school with all girls?” they ask.
It’s not as bad as you think. I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed my high school experience; however, I didn’t know any different. Rather, I look at co-education as strange, imagining “normal” high school settings as “Saved By the Bell”-esque.
Single-sex private education is a touchy topic. Supporters believe it allows students to focus on their studies, to build character and to keep them less distracted by the opposite sex. Critics claim that single-sex schools are relics from the Dark Ages. They claim that co-education better prepares young people for real-world situations and promotes gender equality.
So which philosophy is correct? University of La Verne Professor of Education Janice Pilgreen says neither. “It’s impossible for one to be better than the other,” Pilgreen says. “It depends on the student’s needs, wants and the best fit for them. For different people, different environments match them better. For some, co-ed is exactly what they want for the social experience,” she adds. “For others, single-sex education may be supported in order to meet their academic goals.” However, in many cases, the decision is not up to the child. Parents make it, sending their children to single-sex schools for a variety of reasons, and their children react in just as many different ways.
Max and Aurora Cortez sent daughter Aurora to St. Lucy’s because they felt she would get a better education there than at public schools in their Rowland Heights community. “My parents sent me to an all-girls school because not only did they want me to stay away from boys, but because they wanted me to go to a good school,” says Cortez, now a 21-year-old senior communicative disorders major at Cal State Fullerton. “They thought St. Lucy’s offered much more than a public school did.”
For other families, sending their children to a single-sex school carries on a proud family tradition. “My mom went to St. Lucy’s, and my dad went to Damien, so my going to St. Lucy’s was pretty much a given,” explains Mary Pat Donohoe, now a 20-year-old sophomore history major at the University of California, San Diego, who graduated from St. Lucy’s in 2004. Donohoe found her transition as a St. Lucy’s freshman easy, mainly because she had older relatives and friends who already attended the school.
Mallory Ruiz, a 2002 St. Lucy’s alumna, also followed in her relatives’ footsteps; however, unlike Donohoe, she had trouble adapting to a single-sex environment. “My parents sent all three of us girls to St. Lucy’s,” says Ruiz, now a 22-year-old Cal State San Bernardino English major. “I did not want to go to an all-girls school, and my mom really had to convince me. The first year after I started, I still wanted to transfer. I didn’t like St. Lucy’s until about my senior year. During my senior year, I was so glad my parents had convinced me to go. From my freshman through my junior year, I wanted to go to a co-ed school. I wanted to be around boys and experience the high school life that I saw portrayed on television and in movies.”
“In a single-sex school, students don’t learn to interact with the opposite sex,” Pilgreen says. “This is limiting in the sense that they are not getting an accurate representation of the real world.” Pilgreen also explains that excluding the opposite sex from students’ daily lives also eliminates variety. However, she does stress that the lack of integration allows students to be more comfortable in their own skin. “Students may feel less reticent to speak out in class. They may feel more free to share their opinions. Some people are shy, especially when interacting with the opposite sex.”
The same clothing. The lack of makeup. The tousled, unkempt hair. For students at an all-girls school, this was and still is the popular look sported on a day-to-day basis. And though we, as alumni, may cringe looking back—wishing we took the time to run a comb through our hair or to sweep on a quick coat of mascara—single-sex education instills the philosophy in each of its pupils to embrace education rather than a tube of lipstick. “A girl could only pull off not shaving her legs for months or not doing her hair or makeup at an all-girls school,” Ruiz says with a laugh as she shakes her head at the thought of her everyday appearance in high school. “But I think it is such an amazing thing to not have to worry so much about your looks because it helps you concentrate on what’s really important while in school. It helps build self-esteem, proving that there is more than cosmetics.” Donohoe agrees. “The fact that I could wake up, throw on my uniform and go was a big plus.”
From first-hand experience, I can say that the all-girls environment did take its toll at times. Believe me, it’s not fun as an awkward adolescent girl to scramble for a winter formal date and to most likely resort taking a male friend at the last minute. But then again, I didn’t have to see my ex-boyfriend walking past me in my school’s halls or in my chemistry class everyday. Most importantly, attending an all-girls school provided a safe environment where I felt free to be myself—without caring what I looked like or how I acted. “I could seriously show up to class each day and act like a complete fool, which is totally my character,” Cortez remembers. “I know I would have been a lot more self-conscious if I knew the boy I had a crush on sat next to me in my class.”
Much of the “girl” politics characterized in public high schools—think “Mean Girls”—were eliminated: There was no powerful clique that ruled the school, no one popular boy girls idolized or no pressure to be voted prom queen. “It seems that because there were no boys to get in the way, cattiness between girls occurred less often,” Donohoe explains. “Events like our senior retreat, lunch-time dances and assemblies let the girls come together and act crazy and creative without worrying about impressing or competing with anyone else. The all-girl atmosphere allowed for real friendships that may not have occurred with distractions like boys, clothes or money issues that you can find at say, public high schools.”
Ryan Nearhoff, a 2001 alumnus at Damien High School in La Verne, Calif., also believes that his private, single-sex education allowed him to develop his character and to pursue interests he enjoyed rather than following a crowd. “I mainly went because my older brother went to Damien, but I always wanted to go to an all-boys school,” Nearhoff says. “I really liked it. I thought it was a relaxed environment. As a growing boy, it was good for me because it was a good place to grow into a man. I felt more confident, and it eliminated that pressure to act a certain way because girls are around. There were good teachers, and I felt like I learned, but it was definitely more of a social learning lesson for me rather than an academic experience,” Nearhoff adds.
However, Ruiz realizes the downfall to attending a single-sex school, which does not mimic the real world. “It is kind of a double-edged sword because I do think that one bad thing about going to an all-girls school is the lack of experience you get from interacting with males,” Ruiz says. “Most women will have to co-exist with men whether it be in the workplace or in personal, romantic relationships, and I think having been around them in high school may have prepared me better for that. In some respects, we were a bit sheltered.”
Donohoe, Ruiz and Cortez each confess that they wonder how their high school experience and their lives in general would have differed if they attended a co-ed institution. “I do wonder sometimes if going to a co-ed school would have been more exciting,” Donohoe says. “I wonder if going to a co-ed school would have changed my life or provided me with more experience outside the protective bubble that was St. Lucy’s.” They also agree that their parents’ money was well-spent, each now attending a four-year college with a diligent work ethic.
“In the end, I am so thankful I went to St. Lucy’s,” Ruiz says. “Being there instilled the confidence I most absolutely needed to prove to myself that I am smart and that I can do anything I put my mind to. I think many girls lack the confidence they need and find validation in negative places. Going to an all-girls school reinforces the idea that you can be powerful, beautiful and smart just by being yourself.”