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Public Single-Sex Schools: What Oprah Knew

by Rosemary C. Salomone - November 04, 2015

The U.S. Department of Education recently dismissed a complaint filed 20 years ago by civil liberties groups against the Young Women's Leadership School in East Harlem. This commentary recalls the school's first graduation where Oprah Winfrey as the commencement speaker affirmed the merits of this school and implicitly similar all-girls' schools for disadvantaged students.

As The Young Women’s Leadership School (TYWLS) in East Harlem, New York prepares to mark its 20th anniversary in 2016, its original organizers and current staff have good reason to celebrate. The federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently sent a letter to the New York City Department of Education dismissing a nearly 20-year old legal complaint. This is a victory not just for the school, but also for the successful educational option it has created. For those of us who have doggedly defended TYWLS and other schools like it over the years, the OCR’s decision to dismiss the complaint against the school brings a sigh of relief and satisfaction.

Reading the OCR’s letter transported me back to the first TYWLS graduation on June 26, 2001. It was five years to the day since the Supreme Court had struck down the all-male admissions policy at the state-operated Virginia Military Institute, a ruling that I supported. The setting was the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. As each graduate’s photo flashed across a large screen, underscored with the college where she was headed, there was a sense of personal and institutional triumph. Adding a touch of star power, Oprah Winfrey was the commencement speaker and she was there to address a packed audience of parents, educators, and distinguished guests. But most of all, she was there to honor a school that had defied the naysayersparticularly the groups that had filed the complaint back in 1996 when the school admitted its first class of seventh grade girls.

In her uniquely inspiring way, Oprah spoke directly to the graduates, sharing her own personal struggles and triumphs. “I am here because of you,” she told them. “I saw my life in your lives. I saw who I was and who I’ve been able to become.” She urged them to shoot for the stars and never forget that “excellence is the best deterrent to racism. It is the best deterrent to sexism.”

In the ensuing years, as I have watched this school flourish and recreate itself in other venues, the tape of this memorable event has played over and over in my head. Oprah had a clear vision of how this school, located in one of the most impoverished communities in NYC, would rewrite the life scripts of these young women. Yet five years before her speech, it was all a dream about to unravel, save for the persistence of determined supporters, educators, and parents who boldly forged ahead despite looming legal action.

For the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Chapter of NOW, and the New York Civil Rights Coalitiongroups whose values I ordinarily sharethe very concept of a separate school for girls seemed rife with sex stereotyping, evoking images of finishing schools at best and limited opportunities for women at worst. Soon after the school opened its doors, they laid their discontents before federal officials. They claimed that the school violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded programs. As they saw it, the program offered “important educational opportunities to girls … not available to boys,” and it was “premised upon stereotypical views” of the sexes. At that time, there was no public school in NYC for boys nor was there one in the planning.

OCR took no immediate definitive action. It was during the Clinton Administration with a First Lady who herself had attended a prestigious women’s college. The Bush Administration, a strong supporter of single-sex schools, likewise let the complaint rest. Apparently deciding not to decide, OCR effectively permitted TYWLS to operate indefinitely and to gradually demonstrate its worth. Yet for two decades, the threat of an imminent decision hung like an ominous cloud over TYWLS and other girls’ public schools following the TYWLS model.

It wasn’t until the Obama Administration took charge that OCR actively re-opened the investigation. OCR officials requested the NYC Department of Education to submit documentation that boys in the surrounding community were receiving an education that was substantially equal to what girls were receiving at TYWLS.  In response, the Department used two coed public schools located in East Harlem, a middle school and a high school, to support its case. Between 2012 and 2015, OCR staff conducted site visits to the three schools, interviewed Department of Education staff, and reviewed the information gathered. On all indices, including admissions policies, technology, class size, interscholastic sports, Advanced Placement classes, and teachers with a Master’s degree, the differences were either marginal or to the advantage of the coed schools.

Now almost 20 years after the beginning of this saga, OCR has dismissed the complaint in a ruling that is reasonable, flexible, and constitutionally sound. It clarifies the meaning of “substantial equality,” specifically in the context of public single-sex schools. It also affirms the Title IX regulations, enforced by OCR, that the corresponding school need not be single-sex nor must the two programs be identical. Working through detailed data, the ruling also offers a lens into where and how far OCR is willing to bend on the comparisons.

Much has happened at TYWLS in the intervening years. For all 15 of its graduating classes, nearly 100 percent of the seniors have been accepted to college, the majority to 4-year institutions. Approximately 80 percent of graduating seniors, primarily identifying as African-American and Hispanic, are the first in their family to attend college. Since 2001, TYWLS graduates have received nearly $50 million in grants and scholarships; the average student aid package has approached $20,000 per year.

The school is now part of the Young Women’s Leadership Schools Network, which includes five schools in New York City serving more than 2,200 students, and 11 affiliate schools spread throughout Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York, and Texas. A twelfth school is scheduled to open in North Carolina next fall. Meanwhile, a number of all-male public schools, including five acclaimed Eagle Academies for Young Men, have opened throughout NYC.

To its credit, the Obama Administration acted responsibly in directly addressing the TYWLS complaint and bringing it to closure. And while the OCR letter states that it is case-specific and should not be used as precedent in future cases, it still provides a roadmap for school organizers and administrators to follow in both establishing and justifying public single-sex schools. Hopefully this important ruling will clear the air of misinterpretations surrounding single-sex schools and encourage educators and policy-makers to move forward on similar initiatives.

In the end, the letter proves that Oprah was right. It just took federal officials a long time to embrace her wisdom as a matter of law. If only the original claimants would now do the same.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 04, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18241, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 5:57:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Rosemary Salomone
    St. John's University
    E-mail Author
    ROSEMARY SALOMONE is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St. John's University School of Law. She is the author of Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling (Yale University Press) as well as True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children (Harvard University Press) and Visions of Schooling: Conscience, Community, and Common Education (Yale University Press).
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