When I am asked to describe Woodberry [Forest School], I talk about many aspects of the school, but the three most important are that we are an all-boarding school, that we are a school for boys, and that we are a school with a strong honor tradition. Our honor system is both a way of life in school and a means for educating students in what it means to live honorably throughout their lives. In addition to these three, I would add that we are a liberal arts preparatory school, that we have strong commitments to the whole student, that most of our students are here for four or three years, that we never take a student for one year, and that we do not have a post-graduate program.
The matter of single-sex education has received increased attention in recent years. Certainly, the topic has been revisited in part because of concern on the part of women that girls in coeducational schools may be disadvantaged in some ways, especially in regard to mathematics and science. There is some irony in this because one of the chief arguments for coeducation was that it provided more equal opportunity for both girls and boys, and because girls mature at least two years earlier than boys, and often walk off with the academic prizes at the elementary and secondary level. Recent concern for girls’ education resulted in the establishment of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, an organization that does exceptional work in advocating the importance of girl’s education in American society. The International Boys’ Schools Coalition was established in the early 90’s. Woodberry Forest is a charter and corporate member of this organization that sponsors research about boys’ education around the world, as well as offering a forum for issues facing boys in our time. I see the work of girls’ schools and of boys’ schools as complementary.
An important new book has just been published by Yale University Press addressing these issues: Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling by Rosemary C. Salomone, a professor of law. Professor Salomone offers the most thoughtful and balanced discussion of single-sex schooling I have read. Her emphasis is on the legal issues involved, and therefore, she especially addresses single-sex schooling in the context of public education. She explores pedagogical practices and writes interesting stories of single-sex schools, including single-sex public schools for girls. Anyone concerned about the social policy implications for the present and future state of elementary and secondary education in America will find this book valuable.
The legitimate and important concern for girls and women in American society has received much attention in the past twenty years; there is much evidence now to suggest that our society needs to give increased attention to its boys as well. Adolescent boys in contemporary American society are vulnerable, and they deserve thoughtful care and guidance. In May of 2003, Business Week ran a cover article entitled “The New Gender Gap,” which highlighted several of the pressing concerns for us as a nation: “Girls trounce boys in reading, and are catching up in math. Girls also dominate in extracurricular activities, while boys make up the bulk of special ed students, account for most stimulant prescriptions, and are more likely to commit suicide than girls.” (Business Week, May 26, 2003, p. 76)
New Research on Boys
For a long time boys’ schools were a matter of tradition, and it was suggested that boys do better academically when they are not “distracted” by the presence of girls. That may be true, but I do not think it is a very good reason for single-sex education. Much more compelling are reasons advanced by recent biological and pedagogical research showing that there are differences in the way boys and girls learn, as well as the in way they interact with one another in the early adolescent years. There are differences between boys and girls that cannot be ignored or wished away. These differences, in turn, manifest themselves in the structure of schools and in the way in which individual disciplines are taught and learned.
Woodberry Forest has been taking note of this research with great seriousness. Our director of information services and head librarian, Barbara May, is one of the chief contributors to a project, sponsored by the International Coalition, which has brought together a bibliography of books and articles about boys and boys’ education. The bibliography is available on line through the IBSC web site (www.theibsc.org). The White Library at Woodberry Forest has developed an extensive collection of these materials and has become a resource for persons interested in further research. Moreover, our faculty has been stimulated by reading books and articles on this topic and discussing the significance of our role as a major boarding school for boys. In addition, we have brought to the campus leading educators to share with us and learn from us. Chris Wadsworth, the Executive Director of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition, was at Woodberry last spring; Richard Hawley, Headmaster of University School, Cleveland, and the Coalition’s first president, spoke to the whole school; Graham Able, Headmaster of Dulwich College, London, who has done comparative research on British schools, visited Woodberry two years ago, as did Christina Hoff Sommers, author of a controversial book entitled The War Against Boys. These presentations stimulated discussion and caused us to think in new ways about what we are doing.
Education with Boys in Mind
Woodberry’s academic program, among the most challenging in the nation, is structured to offer our students the greatest opportunity for success. The academic day is designed with boys in mind: classes are forty-five minutes in length and teaching styles provide for interaction and active engagement. I have found one of the most interesting aspects of Woodberry is that the boys do everything here: there is no subject that is thought of as “masculine” or “feminine.” The importance of this to music, drama and art cannot be overemphasized. Our new Walker Fine Arts Center spurred remarkable developments in music, drama ,and the visual arts. I wish every Woodberry alumnus could visit and see what is going on with our three choirs, wind ensemble, jazz band, string ensembles, painting and drawing classes, and theater productions. We have worked hard to encourage our students to get beyond stereotypes of masculinity, while still providing the greatest opportunities for athletics and other traditional interests of Woodberry students. A single example of this is that year before last, our sixth form football quarterback won the Virginia state poetry contest.
The students at Woodberry Forest have the opportunity to witness a number of different positive male role models. I think the importance of this aspect of the Woodberry experience is one of those things we simply do not think about enough. The value of knowing well a variety of men and of seeing them interact with their colleagues, with friends, and perhaps with spouses and children, is one of the values of a boarding school for boys that we may forget because it is so subtle. Similarly, our students encounter strong female role models because we have women teaching in every academic discipline, as well as staff and spouses centrally involved in the community. The development of lifelong friendships among the students is one of the characteristics for which Woodberry is known. In the residential experience, on the athletic fields, and in other extracurricular activities the students learn how to be colleagues and friends. This is one of the areas where girls, at this age, can be distracting.
Learning to Work with People
Occasionally I hear the observation that the problem with a school for boys is that boys do not learn to work with girls, a requisite skill for the future of our society. Both anecdotal evidence and research studies suggest, however, that boys who learn first to be comfortable with their own identity, and develop confidence about their values actually relate more effectively with girls and women. There is no reason to think that boys need to be “civilized” by being in the company of girls. That is a demeaning idea for both sexes and, in fact, I think we have the opportunity to educate our students to appreciate relationships in a way that is contributive toward greater respect for women. I am often told that Woodberry students are among the most respectful and polite students in mixed settings.
In an article entitled “Single-Sex Classrooms in the 21st Century: Defying the Stereotypes,” Sandy Reese and Dean Corrin write: “Contrary to images from days gone by, today’s single-sex classroom is neither isolating nor old-fashioned. It is, in fact, a nurturing environment where students have the freedom to explore their individual interests and identities. In this special place they are able to pursue their unique potentials and develop a strong sense of self. When these boys and girls step out of the classroom and come together, they are able to do so with confidence and mutual respect. They have not been denied the socializing influence the coeducational classroom is known for, but have instead been bestowed with the opportunity to discover the individual riches that allow them to enter any situation with poise, assurance and dignity.”
One of my favorite observations is that our students are able to treat each other with respect and appreciation for who they are and not for whom the girls say they are. It is often the case that in coeducational settings boys tend to judge each other on the basis of what the girls think of them.
I do not think that single-sex education is necessarily right for every boy or girl. Neither do I think coeducation is the right answer for every student. No one model of education is right for everyone. The greatest strength of American education is its diversity. The key is always to find the right “fit” for an individual student. At the same time, it is clear to me that certain things seem to produce a better educational environment, and that for many students single-sex education offers the greatest opportunity for academic and social development. Such an education is a gift that I wish more students could receive, because it gives students great advantages as they mature, both academically and socially, and move on to higher education. Woodberry Forest offers a special kind of education for able students. Our size allows us to know every boy, so that no student “falls through the cracks.” Our commitment is to try to make it possible for every student to achieve what he wants to achieve. We are a nurturing environment where students are encouraged to develop in ways unimaginable when they first come to Woodberry. It is this combination of ingredients that makes Woodberry Forest such a fine place for our students to mature.