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Learning Like a Girl: Educating Our Daughters in Schools of Their Own

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Our daughter -- more beautiful than her father, even smarter than her mother -- was rejected by a nearby nursery school. "Too many qualified applicants," the letter explained. Excuse me -- the kid was two years old; what possible "qualifications" could she have?

That letter was writ in New York City private school code, because admissions officers aren't allowed to tell the truth. Which is: The pre-K received so many "legacy" applicants -- siblings of current students, children of graduates -- that it couldn't accept any kid outside the school "family."

Last fall, our daughter turned five, and we applied to a bunch of single-sex private schools. We were reasonably confident of her chances -- in her pre-K class, she's generally considered a leader, and on paper, her mother and I look reasonably attractive. But as the parents of many New York City girls applying to private schools this year learned to their dismay, most of these applications produced only rejections. Again, too many legacies. The rich are no longer having two kids and moving to Greenwich. They're having a third child -- their status child, their Rolex child -- and staying in New York and taking up more than their share of private school cubicles.

It would seem that -- in New York, and, just possibly, in a lot of affluent communities -- there aren't enough single-sex schools.

Of the many school crises in America, the one that gets the least attention is the scarcity of quality single-sex schools, especially schools for girls. Before anyone screams that I identify rather too closely with the Elite, let me quickly say that I understand your objections. It's easy not to care about single-sex schools. Very few of them are public. And private schools not only sound snooty, they can be extremely pricey. Even in New York City, where money grows on hedge funds, most parents wouldn't dream of paying -- or just can't pay -- as much as $30,000 for a year of first grade.

Nonetheless, private schools -- especially girls' schools -- are important, for it is here that the best teaching takes place. And for obvious reasons. The staff isn't unionized, the parents' association has limited power. These schools tend to push literature, music and the arts -- the "soft" subjects that are the first to be cut by budget-hammered public schools. And it's very unlikely that Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury will be banned because some civic group believes that reading seditious books leads directly to flag-burning and worse.

But the deeper reason that private girls' schools are important -- and the reason I hope you'll read on, even if you don't have a school-age daughter -- is that girls are important. Yes, "children are our future," but if past is prologue, girls represent a much better future than boys.

Traditionally, boys are taught to win (and, often, win at any cost). You have only to raise your eyes from this screen to see a world powered by such dog-eat-dog ethics, disguised as a concern for "shareholder value". Another generation or two of boys being raised to emulate their fathers, and the greatest Empire of the modern world may crumble in our lifetime.

Girls, in contrast, tend to be collaborators. They look less for the win than the win-win. And when they achieve, they look to share and mentor.

Or so says Diana Meehan, co-founder of the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, where girls go to class only with girls and are the better for it. You have heard the reasons why elsewhere: As boys and girls hit adolescence, the boys become classroom gods and the girls fall silent. The boys achieve; the girls support. And when it comes to science and math, guess who gets called on first?

Meehan and two friends decided to start a school -- "where the best teachers could do their best teaching and the girls would have the tools, the risks, the chances to fail and to succeed" -- without having any experience launching a business or serving on a school board. Just as well. "New schools are models of chaos theory," Meehan writes.

The story of how Meehan and her view actualized their "dream in a hurry" will be inspiring to anyone who's ever started any enterprise. You'll become an Archer booster early on, and the school's growing pains will make you wince. Granted, Meehan cherry-picked her anecdotes, but the girls you'll meet along the way are inspiring -- they're everything you'd want your own kids to be. And it all works out; although Archer girls don't grind and compete, they do amazingly well on tests and get into any college they want.

How do you know if your town could use a new school? If the private schools turn away two-thirds of their applicants, there's a need. And an opportunity. But even if you read this book without a new school in mind, it's a great resource. There's a terrific appendix of summer programs for girls that, alone, is worth the cost of the book.

There are aspects of this book that make me grimace. The introduction is by Tom Hanks, obviously an Archer parent and, by every account, a terrific human being -- but not likely to be coming to your town to help a struggling girls' school make a fortune at the Spring Benefit. And that's just the start of the specialness. The Archer board is a Who's Who of female Los Angeles. And then there is language that resides primarily on LA's West Side -- like Meehan saying she wrote the book, in part, to "share the journey." Only in LA can anyone say that with a straight face, and even then, it's better coming out of the mouth of a none-too-clever actress on Oscar night.

But in the end, you come back to the girls. "We'd go into a burning building for one another," one says. My eyes misted. I went to great schools, but I didn't have that. I doubt you did. And as I get on in life, I'm starting to think that kind of bonding is the most important lesson a school has to teach.

If you have a daughter with potential -- or know the parents of a girl who could be somebody -- "Learning Like a Girl" just might be more valuable than braces.

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