When Tyson Haynes and Kai Conner hit puberty, school got tricky.
All of a sudden, Conner — a 12-year-old student body president with a straight-A report card — wondered whether she was cute enough, cool enough and stylish enough to attract a boy.
“I had a lot of boys who liked me and that made me nervous,” Conner said. “I didn’t want to do anything wrong. … Girls are like that. They like that attention.”
Haynes, 14, said he saw his grades slip.
“Yeah, I was going to school with girls and getting in trouble a lot,” he said.
Haynes is an eighth-grader at Paul Laurence Dunbar Young Men’s Leadership Academy. Conner is about to complete her sixth-grade year at Young Women’s Leadership Academy. The single-sex schools, created by a team of educators in the Fort Worth district, are free from the boy-girl drama that can derail academic success at a critical developmental stage.
If state designations are any indication, they appear to be succeeding.
Under the state’s accountability system, both schools met state standards in 2012-13. They also both received state distinction designations — awarded for performing better on some tests than 40 similar public schools — in some subjects. The YMLA was among the top 25 percent of similar state schools that improved test scores from one year to the next.
More than 70 percent of the students at both schools are from underprivileged homes and face challenges their more affluent peers don’t typically encounter. For example, some may not have enough to eat at home as their families struggle to make ends meet.
Both campuses use focused strategies crafted to battle negative messages that can propel the youngsters down the wrong path, said Niesha Jones, dean of students at the YWLA.
“It’s about building up who they are here, giving them a foundation here, versus trying to fight the mounting messages of low self-esteem and all the gender barriers that they will face in the real world,” Jones said.
YMLA Principal Rodney White and YWLA Principal Mia Hall agree that they can produce motivated learners in a single-sex environment.
Hall calls her students “gems.” Girls are elevated to a different gem each year: freshmen are “sapphires,” sophomores “emeralds” and juniors are “rubies.” Each girl is a “diamond” when she reaches her senior year.
The walls on each floor of the campus, painted in shades of papaya and turquoise, are emblazoned with empowering messages from prominent women such as Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor.
Girls take 90-minute classes.
That would never work at the YMLA, White said. The boys’ classes are 49 minutes long, he said. Instead of gem designations, the boys join groups called “prides,” similar to a fraternity. The YMLA has four prides, each named after a historical figure: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who helped more than 6,000 Jewish refugees escape to Japanese territories during World War II.
They work off energy physically, even in academic subjects.
At 9:20 a.m. on Monday, April 14, 220 boys are stomping their feet and slapping high-fives in the YMLA auditorium. Boys are wiggling in their chairs, jumping, even screaming and howling.
Just before a game of vocabulary speed play begins, London Zambito, an eighth-grader, brandishes a fourth-place trophy from a Latin competition in Round Rock over a recent weekend. (Each student in White’s school is required to take Latin.)
His classmates roar with applause.
Within seconds, the boys move on to a speed game of vocabulary terms. Seventh-grader James Owens completes the task in 15 seconds, outwitting his opponent.
“I practiced before I came so I was probably better prepared,” the victor blurts into the microphone.
Just as that event ends, another begins. Two groups of boys begin a debate over the validity of the famed Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Scott was a slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and two daughters in 1857.
In about 10 minutes, a boy representing a judges’ panel of students says the competition is over.
Each team’s debate points are tabulated on a scorecard and one point appears to be the deciding factor in the match. The winning team is announced, which triggers boys to climb all over each other to celebrate victory with slaps, hugs and high-fives.
Many of the exercises at the YMLA are about competition, White said.
“It’s always got to be something about where my group can win,” White said. “If the talk is not competitive, they’re not in it anymore.”
White says he uses almost every possible incentive to motivate the young men. He posts on bulletin boards the student test scores compared to those of other district schools. He promises lunches and dinners at places such as Olive Garden to those who make consecutive good grades.
Fifteen-year-old Juan Menchaca is quick to walk every guest on a tour of the school to a bulletin board showing a spread of test scores in the district.
“Here are our test scores,” Menchaca said. “We want to be ranked the best school in the district, and we are going to be at least in the top three.”
Posting the scores makes the boys strive for more, White said.
“They need to know the fruits of their labor.”
In Mia Hall’s cafeteria at the YWLA the next day, the tone is starkly different. Teams of girls are popping chips and juice cans, laughing and joking. The scene is much quieter than the boys’ auditorium.
‘They can sit here all day,” Jones said. “In fact, they prefer it.”
Educators at the YWLA are trying to bash stereotypes that tend to thrive in co-educational schools — the idea that self-worth is tied to popularity, appearance and socioeconomic status. Hall’s goal is to encourage girls to venture into areas where women typically have not excelled, such as math and science, she said.
“We wanted to establish a sisterhood there to support one another,” Hall said. “With the absence of the opposite sex, they’re not vying for their attention so they are not competing with one another, it’s more of a support system.
“They have the courage to try things that they wouldn’t normally do for fear of ridicule.”
Girls are encouraged to dive into areas of study typically dominated by boys: technology, engineering and science. Even though the school’s oldest students are sophomores, four girls are already taking advanced mathematics courses such as pre-calculus, Jones said.
A focus on math and science is what drew eighth-grader Emily Hernandez to the school.
“There are so many people here you can relate to and talk to,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about impressing anybody.”
Freshman Leslie Erwin, 15, said her parents were never focused specifically on an all-girl campus.
“It was never about, “Let’s send her to an all-girls school.’ It was about let it be an academically rigorous school,” she said. “And it was always my choice. And it was definitely my No. 1 choice to come here. I think it’s great. It’s a very small community and it is focused on academics and college.”
The single-sex school question
The issue of single-gender education has been debated for years.
The naysayers include the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, which says the schools encourage gender stereotypes. Skeptics also say that educational success depends more on personalized attention, good teachers and a rigorous curriculum.
Even so, some of Texas’ largest public school districts have embraced the idea of single-sex schools to counter falling test scores and low performance. Dallas opened Texas’ first all-female campus, the Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, in 2004. The San Antonio and Grand Prairie school districts also have created single-gender schools.
The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education estimates that more than 100 stand-alone schools operate in the U.S. for single-gender students. Also, more than 520 public school systems have dedicated classrooms to single-gender education.
Supporters say the schools are becoming more popular because they provide a safety net for girls. Bethanie Skipper, the girls’ counselor at the YWLA, says the campus offers her girls the chance to hone an identity in a nonthreatening environment.
“This is a time in their normal development when they are processing their emotions, and typically, too, during that time, we’re finding our identity, and we get that through our peers,” said Skipper. “This is a safe environment where they are able to first figure out who they are.”
While there’s no definitive research on whether single-sex public education is better, White said he sees a direct correlation between his boy-only grouping and better grades.
That’s proof that strategies at the YMLA are working, he said.