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Should I send my child to a single-sex school?

Learn more about single-sex schools, and what advocates and detractors say. Then decide for yourself.

By Psyche Pascual

It’s a schoolyard like any other. Students stream out of class and claim the playground in a hail of shrieks. A basketball soars into the air and lands squarely in the hoop, and there’s more hooting and hollering. There’s something different about this schoolyard. Only boys attend school here. Girls are nowhere in sight.

At a classroom across the country, students cluster around a machine they are building, soldering irons and wrenches in hand. But in this room, all of the kids are girls, and they’re learning about robots by making one themselves.

Is a single-sex school right for my child?

Families pick single-sex schools for a variety of reasons. Some feel that single-sex schools offer fewer distractions, while others believe they offer a more equitable learning environment, still others choose a single-sex school because it aligns with their religious beliefs. In many cases, families choose a school for other features — a curriculum that reflects their child's interests, for example — and the fact that the school is single sex has little to do with the choice.

In the long run, parents should consider the academic strengths of a school and their child’s interests first and foremost. If your daughter is a science geek, for example, then you'll want to choose a school with a strong science program, whether it's single-sex or co-ed. If a boy loves music, and the best choir program is at a single-sex school, than that may be the best fit.

Explain to your child what a single-sex school is and what it offers. Visit the school, and make sure your child gets to sit in on classes and talk to other students. Make sure your child knows what the environment is like without members of the opposite sex to play with all day long. Some kids welcome the idea. Others may not.

A modern phenomenon: the rise of single-sex schools

The idea of single-sex schools may seem quaint and old-fashioned — reminiscent of Jane Eyre, or Madeline, who walked through the streets of Paris with her all-girl classmates “in two straight lines,” in Ludwig Bemelmans' beloved children's books.

In fact, single-sex education is rapidly taking root across the United States. What used to be offered only in private schools is spreading to public classrooms across the country. Why has single-sex education seen such rapid 21st-century gains?

In 2006, a key change in Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools, made it legal for publicly funded school districts to create single-sex schools and classrooms. Since then, private and public single-sex enrollments have grown. Supporters attribute the spread of single-sex education to the fact that it raises the bar for girls and boys, giving both sexes an opportunity to thrive and overcome traditional sex roles. But critics believe the science behind these claims is seriously flawed.

What you might find in a single-sex school or classroom

  • Specialized curriculum: Yes, the basics are important, but so is participation in community service, choir, visual arts, drama, health and fitness, and business and entrepreneurial studies. At some single-sex schools, PE isn’t running around the track; instead, students learn Pilates, hip-hop dance, and yoga. Some single-sex schools give students a head start in basic life skills, such as doing laundry and budgeting money. At Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, Maryland, girls take classes on financial literacy and social entrepreneurship. All girls from third to twelfth grade get a dose of money smarts in the school’s Financial Literacy and Social Entrepreneurship program. At the Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland, CA, performance is incorporated into the school’s music program. John Lynch, the school's academic director, says the fact that Pacific Boychoir Academy is single-sex allows students to relax and feel more confident. "They get the freedom from the pressure of being around girls," he says. "This is a fragile time in boys' lives...It allows boys to be little boys longer.”
  • Gender-busting courses: Some boys' schools explore traditional male roles and teach skills traditionally associated with women, such as sewing and cooking. Girls get classes in team leadership and robotics. At Columbus School for Girls in Columbus, Ohio, for example, an all-girls team builds robots and competes in the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program.
  • Small class sizes and enrollment: Some single-sex schools have a student body of only a few dozen, making it possible for class sizes to remain small and instruction to be highly personalized.
  • Public school option: Single-sex education is growing at public school districts across the country as an alternative kind of charter school. There are now about 500 public schools that offer single-sex education around the country. Of these, 390 are co-ed schools that offer a single-sex classroom. At Public School 140 in the Bronx, for example, girls have their own classroom. Students follow the regular curriculum but also focus on women's issues (girls study the lives of influential black women such as Harriet Tubman and First Lady Michelle Obama, for instance).
  • Religious studies may be part of the curriculum: Many single-sex schools are affiliated with Jewish temples and Catholic and Protestant churches, and offer courses in religious studies and theology. At the all-boys Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York, "You'll have young men playing football, but also in glee club, tutoring, on yearbook and teaching religious education after school," says school president Brother Thomas Cleary. "In a co-ed school, girls tend to take up a lot of the spots in the non-athletic clubs and activities. At Chaminade, the boys can do whatever they want." The school holds many after-school events where morality and faith are discussed, and Cleary believes the boys are more open during these sessions than they would be if girls were included.
  • Uniforms and dress codes: At many single-sex schools, students follow a casual dress code, but still wear a uniform. It can be as simple as a polo shirt or skirt of the same color. Some schools require coats and ties. School officials say the dress code works well in instances where a group is required to travel or perform at a venue far away and needs to be instantly recognizable.
  • “Dates” with other schools: Single-sex schooling doesn’t mean zero contact with the opposite sex. Some single-sex schools partner on a regional basis to share the same calendar, making co-ed events like dances and sports events possible. A holiday dance, for example, may include both girls and boys.