The Austin Chronicle

Board Discord on Single-Sex Schools

By Richard Whittaker, January 18, 2013, News

One, three, or none: Those are the options for new single-sex schools facing Austin ISD. But with a board vote on the issue coming up Jan. 28, there's little sign of consensus.

Many thought the district's two plans – turning Pearce and Garcia into single-sex middle schools serving most of East Austin, and a separate proposal to open a boys' academy funded in part by the Moody Foundation – died after they dropped off December's vote for the 2013 Annual Academic and Facilities Recommendations (see "AISD: IDEA Down, Travis Heights Up," Dec. 21, 2012). However, Board President Vince Torres had simply pulled them back for further discussion, and he's now asking his fellow trustees to consider them for the 2014-2015 school year. Single-sex advocates point to the success of the all-girl Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. However, there's a big difference between gender-segregating an entire neighborhood and Ann Richards, an application-only campus that trustees increasingly concede is a magnet school.

District 1 Trustee Cheryl Bradley argues that sex-segregating Pearce and Garcia will create safe havens for prepubescent minority kids. At-Large Position 8 Trustee Gina Hinojosa proposed a compromise: Place the Moody boys' school on a District 1 campus, and give neighborhood kids priority admission. But the Moody Foundation doesn't want exceptions to its admissions policy, and Bradley vehemently does not want a Moody school in her district, claiming the bad blood over the magnet program at Kealing Middle School and the embedded Liberal Arts and Science Academy at LBJ High proves that such embedded schools-within-schools do not work. She said, "You can feel the inferiority as soon as you walk in."

Torres argues against melding the two proposals, calling them "apples and oranges" that are intended to solve different problems. District 7 Trustee Robert Schneider – no friend of radical reform – has argued that the lack of a male analog to Ann Richards leaves the district open to discrimination suits. Tor­res, who attended the Naval Academy back when it was all-male, said the longer the district waits, "the case gets stronger and stronger." But there are two larger questions. First, whether single-sex education has any special merit – an idea hotly contended by many education experts – and secondly, whether the community wants it. AISD conducted a phone survey between Nov. 29 and Dec. 4, and support for single-sex schools among District 1 families was tepid. Only 45% of neighborhood families polled supported the concept, and only 32% said they would consider sending their kids to a single-sex campus. Moreover, 56% of African-American respondents said they actively oppose Brad­ley's plan. District 5 Trustee Amber Elenz said that, as it is early in the process, there is plenty of opportunity for AISD to do outreach to improve those numbers. However, while Super­intendent Meria Carstarphen argued that "there is interest," she warned, "I don't think there is overwhelming support for the design."

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