July 16, 2018
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Single-sex education is on the brink of extinction in Maine

Courtesy of WGME
Courtesy of WGME
Maine's only all-girls school is now set to shut down, but there are already plans in the works to save it.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Updated:

The shuttering of Maine Girls’ Academy and looming temporary shutdown of a small school for teen boys means that single-sex schooling has all but disappeared in Maine.

In a letter shared with parents, students and alumnae Wednesday, Maine Girls’ Academy, the state’s only all-girls school, cemented its decision to close because of flagging enrollment and dipping revenue. School officials said a parent and alumnae-led fundraising push to revive the Portland school was “not realistic” and wouldn’t be capable of coming up with enough money to keep things afloat.

“By keeping that idea alive through the various fundraising activities that are underway, our families and our girls are being given mixed messages about the future of the school with, in our opinion, no likelihood of a different outcome,” wrote Heidi Osborne, chairwoman of the school’s board of trustees.

A GoFundMe.com page was still active Thursday morning and had raised about $14,436 toward a $1 million goal over six days.

What’s left?

There are just two all-boy schools left in Maine, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But one of those boys’ schools, The Deck House, is suspending its operations after a “difficult year,” according to Head of School Tom Blackford. The Deck House is a small, alternative boarding school based in Edgecomb that opened its doors nearly 40 years ago. It typically caps its enrollment at a dozen high school-age boys who struggled to excel in traditional classrooms.

Deck House students typically attend the small school for one or two years before returning to traditional schools. It offers year-round curriculum and a “disciplined, highly structure community environment,” according to its website. Students work closely with their teachers and pitch in with everything from cleaning the campus to preparing meals. Everyone participates in weekend excursions, and spending time outdoors is a key focus.

“For some kids, they find that a more productive way learning and an easier way of connecting,” Blackford said. He declined to go into specifics about what prompted the temporary closure.

That leaves just one operational all-boys school in the state — Future Builders School on Thomas Pond in Raymond. The private school founded in 1988 caters to students in grades seven-12 with developmental or learning disabilities. The school focuses heavily on projects and “learning by doing,” and aims to have each student ultimately return to their sending school, earn a diploma or GED, or find work, according to its website.

Messages left for officials at that school were not returned, but the school has an academic calendar posted for the 2018-19 school year.

Nationwide, 283 single-sex schools were in session during the 2014-15 academic year, according to the most recent available federal data reported in a 2017 Education Week report. The largest numbers were in Texas and Florida, each with 29, followed by Missouri with 28 and New York’s 26.

The bulk of these schools, 170, were all-boys, while 113 were all-girls. The girls’ schools are typically larger, accounting for 21,000 students compared with the boys’ schools 17,000.

Shallow pool

The Sisters of Mercy, a group of nuns who emigrated from Ireland in 1865, founded Catherine McAuley High School in Portland in 1969. It was the newest in a series of Catholic schools for girls in Maine that the nuns started and oversaw dating back to 1877.

Facing declining enrollment and the Sisters’ plans to sell the campus, McAuley dropped its ties to the Catholic Church in 2015 and changed its name to Maine Girls’ Academy the next year. The school’s enrollment had dipped from 200 to 120 in about a decade.

The switch apparently didn’t reverse that trend. As of April 2017, the most recent data reported to the Maine Department of Education showed that 94 girls were enrolled at the school.

Supporters of the girls’ academy aren’t alone in the struggle to attract enough students to remain viable.

Maine’s co-ed private academies have flailed in recent years as the state’s demographic shortcomings become more prominent. Schools — especially in rural areas — are competing for ever-shrinking numbers of young people. Those issues can be exacerbated at single-sex institutions, which can only draw from half of an already dwindling population of young people.

Many academies have turned to international recruitment to fill out their ranks and reverse revenue declines, but even those pupil pools are drying up.

Lee Academy, a 173-year-old private high school, notified its staff last month that it would cut three of its 60 staff positions, and accept resignations from three employees in reaction to dipping enrollments and revenues.

In April, Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield announced it would be “reducing” some faculty, staff and administrative positions, and cutting its freshman basketball program as well as fall and winter cheerleading amid a decline in interest from international students.

Schools, both public and private, across the state have said they’re having a harder time finding enough students to stay afloat while supporting all their current programs.

The debate in Maine

Back in 2013, debate raged in Maine over the merits of single-sex education after a lawmaker proposed a bill that would have allowed Maine’s public schools to offer voluntary classes to only male or female students.

The bill came the year after the Sanford school department suspended single-sex classes, which it had been running for several years, under threat of a lawsuit.

In 2011, there were about 500 public schools offering single-sex classrooms in the United States, according to Leonard Sax, the founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, or NASSPE. That number declined precipitously starting in 2012, when the American Civil Liberties Union launched a campaign challenging the legality and constitutionality of single-sex classes in co-ed public schools.

The ACLU’s Maine branch roundly condemned single-sex classes in public schools, citing the “questionable legality of single-sex schooling in public schools, segregating students by sex in Maine’s schools raises significant educational and pedagogical concerns.”

Other groups, including the Maine Human Rights Commission, also argued that such classes could be discriminatory. The bill ultimately failed, and classes in Maine public schools remain co-ed.

“The unusual constellation of federal laws and regulations — which encourage single-gender schools but discourage single-gender classrooms — is largely to blame for the peculiar phenomenon: The number of single-gender SCHOOLS is rising in the public sector, while the number of public schools offering single-gender CLASSROOMS is falling,” Sax said in an email.

Some advocates of single-sex schools argue separating boys and girls in the classroom accomplishes little, but having an all-boys or all-girls building can change the dynamic and improve learning results.

“Girls attending girls’ schools were significantly more likely to attend a 4-year college compared with girls attending coed schools,” according to the National Association for Choice in Education, formerly known as NASSPE. “Likewise, boys who graduated from boys’ schools were significantly more likely to attend a 4-year college compared with boys who graduated from coed schools.”

Critics of single-sex institutions argue the statistics cited by advocates aren’t scientific and don’t prove that improved performance over co-ed schools has anything to do with the fact that students of the opposite sex aren’t present.

“There is no empirical evidence showing that the success of these students stems from the single-sex nature of the learning environment,” the ACLU wrote in its opposition to the single-sex classroom bill. “Most of the research on single-sex schooling in the United States has been conducted on private or religious schools, which tend to draw students from an affluent pool.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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