The sixth-graders at the Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) zigzagged onto campus in Panorama City, all hair twirls and folded arms. It was their first day of middle school and the charter school’s first day, too.
Principal Vanessa Garza, who wore the school’s uniform — yoga pants, GALS T-shirt — gave the girls a taste of its ethos when she asked them to decide as a group whether to call teachers by their first names.
“We’re empowering you, and we want you to know your voice matters,” she told her advisory class.
GALS is one of two new all-girls schools that opened this year in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Just 17 miles southeast of the leadership school, the Girls Academic Leadership Academy welcomed new students last month.
Ella Salim, a spunky 11-year-old, bonded with L.A. schools Supt. Michelle King as they waited in the bustling office of the new district-run school in Mid-City. King admired Ella’s purple-rimmed glasses, and recommended that she check out the Purple Store.
Purple is the new school’s color, and Ella escorted King to cut the purple ribbon. “The year of the woman continues,” King told the crowd at the opening ceremony. “It’s not always easy to be the first, but you believe and you are here.”
Single-sex public schools are far rarer than private ones, and the new ones in Los Angeles highlight subjects dominated by men. GALS emphasizes athletics, and GALA focuses on math and science.
For the first time in U.S. history, a woman is leading a major-party presidential ticket. The perception of gender — and of the differences between boys and girls — is constantly evolving.
So why is the nation’s second-largest school district boosting single-sex schools now?
The women behind both all-girls schools came to them through experience.
GALA Principal Elizabeth Ackerman Hicks has worked in L.A. Unified for 30 years, as a teacher, counselor and administrator. But single-sex schools piqued her interest when her daughters got scholarships to the private, all-girls Marlborough School. “As a public school teacher, I was impressed,” she said.
She wanted to build a school that leveled the playing field in STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — while helping girls build self-confidence and curiosity. So she started talking to parents about bringing a similar approach to the district.
One of King’s three daughters went to the private Archer School for Girls, and the superintendent shared similar sentiments. “Finally, we’re able to provide an opportunity that has been reserved to the select few,” she said at the athletic leadership school’s opening ceremony.
Hicks’ proposal, submitted three years ago, said that although L.A. Unified girls tied or bested their male peers’ scores in standardized-test math and science through fifth grade, they fell behind by high school.
Carrie Wagner, executive director of the Los Angeles athletic leadership school, grew up in Cleveland, and was bullied by girls in middle school. Then, she transferred to an all-girls Catholic school. “It kind of healed everything,” she said. “I moved from not being comfortable around girls to realizing they’re my sisters.”
Wagner said she was often inspired by educational entrepreneurs who started schools when she was working at a nonprofit organization that provided business and support services to charter schools. She later worked for Citizens of the World, a group of charters. But she’d never thought of starting one of her own.
Then one of her clients who had moved to Denver called and raved about her daughter’s new school, GALS, which integrated movement into academics, set goals and helped the girls reach them.
Wagner immediately knew she wanted to bring the model to Los Angeles. “There is an academic benefit from the kids learning about health,” she said. The heart of it, she said, was creating a school that supported social and emotional development.
Wagner said she hopes the two all-girls schools will be partners and help cure “the bad juju about the tensions between district and charter schools.”