Becoming Coeducational: A Report from Deerfield

by Michael S. Cary - 1991

Describes Deerfield Academy's recent process of changing from a single-sex to a coeducational school. Though some students and teachers resisted the change, most adapted well and enjoyed the new atmosphere. The school community believes that Deerfield should not settle for anything less than a full coeducational status. (Source: ERIC)

You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand. It sounds like flattery but it ain’t no flattery. And when it comes to beauty—and goodness, too—she lays over them all.

—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Huck Finn’s words about Miss Mary Jane Blodgett are a revelation—a teenage boy’s discovery of the depth and strength of character in a young woman. The world of the Widow Watson, an uncomfortable place of form, order, and propriety, was as strange to the boy as it was confining. The freedom and fraternity of the raft bring their own reassurance that the world can be observed safely at arm’s length—but the view comes with a price. Even with a good moral compass and a hawk’s eye for foibles, Huck, while he remains on the raft, suffers from a fundamental ignorance about the way the world works.

The argument for a boys’ boarding school is an argument for viewing the world from the raft. Economy of purpose and certainty of task, the ability to address the needs of a particular group of young people at a complicated time in their lives, are the warrant for all single-sex schools. Simplicity, clarity, straightforwardness in a school community, enable young people to appropriate knowledge more effectively. Deerfield could make the claim that it was a rigorous but not a complicated place. Still, by the 1986-1987 academic year many faculty, together with the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees, were recommending that after a hiatus of twelve years, the coeducation issue be revisited. Among the faculty a view was emerging that, while the academy did many things well, important dimensions of education were missing in a single-sex environment. At its April 1987 meeting the board charged the headmaster to undertake a full and thorough study of coeducation with a trustee/faculty committee as the mechanism for that study.

The ninety-four page report of the Committee to Study Coeducation addressed every facet of school life—curriculum, faculty, athletics, extracurricular activities, school traditions and ethos, social life, admissions, college matriculation, medical and health issues, and finances and facilities. Admissions data, alumni office annual support records, alumni letters to the headmaster, the results of a faculty survey, a report on meetings with the student body, interviews with five boarding school heads—all became part of the official record for deliberation. Additionally, the study committee read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, Lionel Tiger’s Men in Groups, Valerie Lee’s University of Michigan study “Effects of Single Sex Secondary Schools on Student Achievement and Attitudes,” and the “Bender Report” of the Harvard Admissions Office.1 The writers of the coeducation report acknowledged the importance to the board of “hard” issues—the financial costs of coeducation, the effects on admissions and college acceptance, alumni support, and faculty hiring and retention—but urged equal consideration of philosophical issues like the values inherent in a Deerfield education and the identification of the most important pedagogical goals for a contemporary boarding school.

When the trustee vote came in February 1988, it had been preceded by three letters from the headmaster to the alumni body detailing the substance of the coeducation debate. Alumni disapproval of the nearly unanimous trustee vote in favor of coeducation was less than had been anticipated and was countered by new alumni interest in admission for daughters. A four-year, $36 million capital campaign came to conclusion in the year following the coeducation decision, surpassing by $6 million the campaign goal.

The year following the vote was taxing. A third of the campus lay under construction with projects planned before the coeducation vote, including the renovation of two classroom buildings and the building of a new fine arts center, three new dormitories, and new athletic facilities. A planning process that was to involve virtually all members of the school community was underway with the formation of six student-faculty committees and a steering committee. Their charge was to develop policies and make recommendations for implementing coeducation in 1989. Each Tuesday evening during the school year was set aside for committee meetings to plan for changes in curriculum, admissions, athletics, institutional resources, and student life. Committee decisions became public record in three reports to alumni and the school community from the assistant headmaster.

A coeducation speaker series brought to the campus several educators whose views on teaching and residential life were to inform discussion and planning. Addressing the faculty in the winter and spring of 1989 were George Fleck of the Smith College chemistry department on the subject of a nonsexist science curriculum; Rachel Belash, head of Miss Porter’s School, on women in power; Ronald Green of the Dartmouth religious studies department on men’s issues in coeducation; Marilyn Schuster and Susan Van Dyne, Smith College curriculum consultants, on gender issues in curriculum redesign; Robert Bain, Professor of Sports Psychology at York University in Ontario, on coaching in women’s athletics; Ruth Solie of the Smith College music department on women in an arts program; and Dr. Robert Maslund of Harvard Medical School on adolescent development and sexuality. Three former Deerfield faculty members who had gone on to teach at coeducational boarding schools also offered their views in a panel discussion.

Alternating between heady philosophical discourse and choosing the design and colors for the girls’ field hockey kilts, coeducation planning became all-consuming. Many believed that perfection lay in the details, others that too much planning would leave the school community enervated and edgy and inhibit the joyful spontaneity of the first year. Virtually all were ready to get on with it by the end of the 1989 school year. One faculty member offered the metaphor of becoming a parent for the first time: All that could be planned for had been; the rest was to be learned by doing. That would require the professionalism of the faculty and the enthusiasm of the student body.

Two important directives from the trustees were to shape the experience of the first coeducational year. The first was that coeducation was not to take place by accretion. Academy enrollment was to remain substantially unchanged. The second was that a “normal” coeducational experience in the first year would require the enrollment of at least 100 girls: Deerfield was not to be a “a boys’ school with girls.” An enrollment of 100 girls through all four grades would ensure the presence and participation of girls in all facets of school life from the outset. The academy commenced the 1989-1990 school year with 123 girls, the majority of whom were enrolled as ninth and tenth graders. Eight of their number were African-American or Hispanic. Another 11 were international students. Eleven alumni daughters and 21 younger sisters brought with them a familiarity with the school and its traditions.

More than half of the 212 new students, including day students, were girls. Still, the girls were to be a distinct minority in the first coeducational year. Admissions experience had suggested a high degree of self-selection in the first girls’ applicant group and, not surprisingly, the admissions yield for girls was several points higher than that for boys. The decision to reserve for girls a number of leadership positions in school organizations and to offer eleven girls’ interscholastic sports teams proved to be incentives for many girls in choosing Deerfield from among several offers of admission. Of course, equally appealing was the notion of being one of the “first girls.” In spite of campus construction, a national decline in applications to boarding schools, and uncertainty about the transition, Deerfield’s applications soared from 640 the previous year to nearly 1,040. Conscious of the fact that both the successes and failures of the first females would be conspicuous, the admissions committee gave careful attention in candidate evaluations to evidence of strength of character and leadership promise.

Evidence of the impact of a coeducational student body on academic program appeared even before opening day. The dean of studies reported that over half of the prematriculation inquiries about academic program came from girls, though they constituted only slightly more than one-fifth of the student body. Foreign-language enrollments shot up, with all levels of French and introductory Russian posting new highs. Likewise, enrollments in non-Western studies courses and advanced placement science courses increased. The academy’s new dance program generated enrollment for both academic and athletic credit. An important policy decision addressed gender balance in Deerfield classrooms. Whenever possible, three or four girls were assigned to a particular section. A gender balance in some classes with no girls in others was thought preferable to a thin distribution of girls across the maximum number of sections. The girls were spared the awkward responsibility of speaking for their gender as a lone voice but the sacrifice came in senior courses, several of which contained not a single girl. Additionally, girls’ academic schedules were structured to include at least two female teachers out of five, a feat made possible with a female representation on the faculty of 30 percent.

In the opening weeks of the first coeducational year the transition seemed to most to be “effortless and uncontrived,” almost seamless. Deerfield girls entered without fanfare into extracurricular life as tour guides, class officers, editors of student publications, proctors, musicians, actors, and debaters. Librarians reported an increase in the noise level at the library during study hours, perhaps an indication of a more collaborative pattern in study. Boys complained about new parietal regulations and more stringent sign-out procedures for dormitories. In fact, resistance to coeducation has taken the form of resistance to a perceived increase in the structure of community life. The academy became, in the minds of several older male students, more complicated, more regulated, and less casual. At the same time the camaraderie that male students had taken pride in was extended to include girls. The mixed reactions to coeducation among students have not been directed ad hominem. The sadness or anger among some boys is a result of a perception of loss. The Deerfield they know is gone and a new community is taking shape, one whose characteristics are still uncertain in their minds. The fact that several of the changes in community life have been mandated by adults exacerbated their unease. A half serious “mens’ club” that formed in the spring term was more a defiant gesture toward the administration than a statement to female students. What is clear is the student concern that coeducation not mean a homogenization of school life. Enclaves where friendships among boys and among girls can be strengthened are important, in students’ minds, to the health of the school.

Yet even as they sought time and space for single-sex friendships, students of both genders obviously enjoyed each other’s company. One faculty member commented, “I’m struck by the good humor and joking that crosses gender lines. It is a humor with less malice or sarcasm than I have seen in the past.” Another noted that students more often lingered in the dining hall for conversation after meals and recalled hearing a cheerfully stated but challenging question, “Well, would you curtail your career for your children so that your wife could take a challenging position?” “I find the campus more relaxed, open, and accessible,” remarked a woman faculty member. “There is more merriment and laughter in my class.” For a school community that many faculty believed took itself too seriously, the more relaxed, lighter tone of campus life came as a relief. “Our schizophrenia of intensity in work and play has subsided,” noted a history teacher. “The girls’ presence has made for a more humane place.”

In the classroom the effects were more tangible. Many had wondered about the conservative argument that coeducational classrooms would bring with them a heightened inhibiting self-consciousness. A member of the English department conceded, “Yes, coeducation has forced greater self-consciousness,” but added, “In many if not most cases the self-consciousness creates the possibility, even the likelihood of self awareness . . . there seem to be more students this year who have revealed, assessed, accepted, or reconsidered themselves than I’ve noticed in previous years. A comment or reminder from a peer of the opposite gender is a wonderfully accurate and unavoidable mirror.” “There is no loss of candor in my classroom,” wrote a drama teacher. “If anything the candor is more ready.”

Anxiety about a bifurcation of male and female “voice” in the classroom appears to have been unfounded. One science teacher noticed a change in the dynamic of classroom discussion from student to teacher to student to student. “I’m hearing articulate young people speak about issues that literature engenders,” wrote an English teacher. “Granted, many girls argue a critical point from their own experiences and perceptions, but I have yet to hear rancor, vindictiveness, or animosity in any female voice in my classes to what might once have been a particularly male point of view.”

Some speculated that tension about the coeducation transition played itself out more among the adults in the community than the students: “Perhaps we as faculty at Deerfield are too uptight about issues of sexism. The girls openly resent what often appears as a search for controversy”; “The issue of equity between boys and girls in every facet of school life is more valued by adults than by students. Many girls do not like ‘rocking the boat’ and prefer to moderate dissonance by agreeing, complying, or deferring. This extended the life of some vestiges of chauvinism. I hope and suspect this will change with the increasing number of girls.” Many believe, as does the assistant headmaster, that the issues of equity and parity are related. Deerfield opened in 1990 with more than 200 girls, approximately 37 percent of the student body. The following year will bring the school close to parity in male-female numbers. Coeducation, within the classroom and without, is a matter of balance. The consensus at Deerfield now is that the school should not settle for any status less than “fully coeducational.” That commitment assumes change in faculty through hiring and retention that parallels change in student enrollment. Unprecedented admissions interest in the academy has confirmed the wisdom of proceeding boldly. There is no halfway point between Huck Finn’s raft and the shore with its greater ambiguity, complexity, challenge, and reward.

During the 1990 spring term all Deerfield students were given time in English class to write their reflections about the year and their place in the school. At the end of that school day a special school meeting was called to enable students to share their thoughts with each other. Two weeks later at another school meeting several faculty read excerpts from those student essays. The combination of hopefulness and pointed institutional criticism was striking. Students wrote of the need for greater tolerance, better communication, improved opportunities for school service, more time for reflection. At the same time, they revealed immense pride in their school and impatience with complacency. The institution has, by virtue of coeducation, set its sights higher because mediocrity is more conspicuous now.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 3, 1991, p. 445-450 ID Number: 303, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 11:09:08 AM

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