Single-Gender Education and Mentoring Aims to Empower and Inspire Girls

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March 14, 2016; WBAL-TV (Baltimore, MD)

Educate a girl, change the world. It’s a concise yet compelling proclamation frequently expressed by those involved in the women’s empowerment movement. The common thread linking intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations to the many smaller scale nonprofit shops devoted to lifting women up and creating equitable access to education, opportunity, and resources is women and girls’ education; it’s a key ingredient in the recipe for breaking down barriers and bridging society’s gender gap. One new middle school for girls nestled in north Baltimore not only believes in the power of education for its female students, it’s making a pointed effort to involve other young women from a neighboring school as its students mentors and teachers.

Clearly stated on Lillie May Carroll Jackson School’s (LMCJS) website is the “core belief that changing girls’ lives changes the world.” The school, which opened just last year and is named in honor of the civil rights activist Lillie May Jackson, follows the Expeditionary Learning design, based on principles like self-discovery, collaboration, success and failure, and service and compassion. Incorporating these building blocks and more, the school also takes great pride in its female mentors who are enrolled just up the street at Roland Park Country School.

The inaugural class of fifth-and-sixth graders is paired with female upper school mentors who provide guidance in homework and extracurricular activities as well as typical issues that girls in this age range commonly face, such as self-esteem and self-awareness. According to one of the students, the female peer-to-peer mentoring is like a “sisterhood.”

The single-gender learning and mentoring environment is one that uncovers numerous possibilities, particularly for girls, according to research. Recognizing this, the federal No Child Left Behind legislation loosened Title IX restrictions to allow public schools to create single-sex classrooms or single-sex schools. In addition to obtaining higher cognitive achievement and feeling more confident, the model also provides young women with the opportunity to take on in an academic setting a wide range of roles, including writer, athlete, musician, and scientist. With international conversation focused on the need to spark an interest in young girls to pursue degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), many believe single-gender schools and mentoring programs heighten the chance that female students will explore these areas traditionally dominated by their male counterparts.

Despite the seemingly favorable support for single-gender learning, other research, including a 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, suggests that differences between single-gender schools and coeducation settings are “trivial” and oftentimes “nonexistent.” Nonetheless, schools like LMCJS are undoubtedly empowering their adolescent female leaders at a time when perhaps it matters most. As LMCJS Board Chairwoman Monica Mitchell puts it, “We are instilling a foundation in these women that they’re going to carry with them the rest of their lives.”—Lindsay Walker