After putting off a decision for weeks, Sarah LaVanway absolutely knew she needed a change.
The tipping point was homeroom.
The eighth graders were getting their end-of-year report cards, and a group of boys stole hers, teasing her — much to her frustration — about her good grades.
LaVanway belonged to a unusually male-skewed cohort of eighth graders at Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest, and so she decided, after shadowing a friend of hers from her dance class, to attend high school at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart, located about a mile-and-a-half south of Deer Path.
She went from having classes where there were two boys to every girl to the only all-girls school in Lake County, where she is now a senior and looking at colleges where she hopes to study human rights.
"I had never been involved in school activities," LaVanway said. "I had never felt confident sharing my opinion in the classroom, ever, in middle school. Coming here and suddenly being surrounded only by girls in an environment where they really encourage you to get involved and to participate, I immediately became a really active member of the community, almost without realizing it."
Woodlands Academy, which was established in 1858 and currently serves about 125 students, may not be the only choice for single-gender education in Lake County for much longer, though.
The North Shore Prep Foundation, the driving force of which is Tara Thomas, its executive director, is seeking to open two single-gender college preparatory schools: an all-girls school in North Chicago, and an all-boys school in Waukegan.
Unlike Woodlands Academy, which is a day and boarding private Catholic high school, the proposed new arrivals would be charter schools funded primarily through tax dollars and require approval of either the local school boards or the state.
Thomas said this week that formal applications would be submitted in coming weeks to both Waukegan School District 60 and North Chicago Community Unit School District 187. The process would then involve public hearings to detail the proposals, followed by a yes-or-no vote by each of the school boards that could be appealed at the state level.
The North Shore Prep proposal comes at a time when there's a been a "major uptick" in the number of single-gender schools in the country and schools offering gender-segregated classes, said Juliet Williams, a gender studies professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.
That's a concern for Williams, who argues in her book "The Separation Solution? Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality" that single-gender education not only fails to produce the results its proponents say, but the approach buys into gender stereotypes at the expense of students.
She worries that schools like the ones being proposed in high-poverty areas — like Waukegan and North Chicago, where 55 and 83 percent of students, respectively, are considered low-income — offer single-education as a reform because it's easily implemented with existing resources.
The more expensive solutions — smaller class sizes, improved training for teachers, mentoring for students and other resources — have clear research-backed track records in improving student success, Williams said.