NEW YORK — High school senior Geraldine Agredo fell in love with computer science in a surprising setting: her ninth-grade Spanish class. There, she learned to code in order to build games that teach simple Spanish lessons.
Coding “was a logical way of thinking” that she could apply to constructing essays and other schoolwork, she says. She’s now planning to major in computer science in college.
There’s much talk these days of a gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). One way educators are tackling that gender gap is by creating all-girls public STEM schools. Geraldine attends The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria (TYWLS, or “twills,” as they call it) – part of a network of five such schools in New York City that is often looked to as a model for public girls’ schools around the country.
Backers of these schools say they offer a choice to urban, low-income girls that has long been available to their wealthier counterparts. They say the culture of sisterhood and college prep at these schools is empowering girls to march confidently into fields where they have long been underrepresented.
Geraldine believes the all-girls setting has helped her. Before starting at TYWLS in sixth grade, she says, “there were times [in class] when I would be about to say something, and I would stop and be like, ‘Hmm, what would the guys say?’ ” Here, instead of worrying about how her hair or uniform looks, she says, “we just come as we come. It gives us that freedom.”
The trend appears to be growing:
- When the first TYWLS opened in East Harlem in 1996, it was the first all-girls public school started in the United States in 30 years. Now the network estimates there are about 100 district-run girls’ schools and 75 all-girls charter schools. It’s not known how many emphasize STEM.
- The Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, in St. Louis, opened this semester as the first single-sex public school in Missouri. The charter school will serve Grades 6 through 12, and students take two periods of math and a science lab every day.
- In the fall of 2016, both Ohio and North Carolina will have their first all-girls public schools, also charters with a STEM focus. Los Angeles will open a similar school, run by the district.
- Examples can be found in several cities in Texas; Baltimore; St. Paul, Minn.; and a number of other cities.
“There’s a lot more to our model than just the single sex,” says Laura Rebell Gross, director of the girls’ education program at the Young Women’s Leadership Network, which supports the New York schools and some affiliates around the country. “I don’t know if I can always separate the all-girls [aspect] from the college-going culture,... the smaller classroom..., and the advisory class we have every day [that is] focused on the social-emotional needs of the students. There’s just such a sense of community, and the girls’ voices are so strong.”