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Schools offering success, but not many takers

MIAMI -- It’s a familiar scene at most high schools nationwide: Girls and boys date, break up, mope and spend months avoiding each other in the hallways.

Not at one Little Havana high school.

The Young Women’s Preparatory Academy is the only all-girls public school in Florida.

The single-gender model has long been a hallmark of private and parochial schools, including some of South Florida’s most prestigious academic institutions: Belen Jesuit and Columbus for boys, and Our Lady of Lourdes and Carrollton for girls.

But never in public schools, at least not until a national movement to create more choices for students prompted the Miami-Dade district to reconsider. In 2006, the district opened the Young Women’s Preparatory Academy. A brother school in nearby Buena Vista opened its doors two years later.

The two magnet schools, which enroll kids from all over the county, are among a handful of single-sex public schools in the country. Both boast above-average test scores and attendance rates, and have placed students on track to attend top-tier colleges such as Wellesley, North Carolina and Duke.

Local school officials and their counterparts around the country are watching. Under competitive pressure from private and charter schools, they are looking for new formulas to engage students and boost academic achievement.

Over the past four years, the Young Women’s Prep has earned a slate of As and Bs from the state Department of Education. This past year, the school saw 57 percent of sophomores pass the state reading test.

The numbers are impressive, considering more than two-thirds of the girls live below the poverty line.

The school was a tough sell for some girls, in part because of the formal uniform required on Wednesdays: a knee-length plaid skirt, white blouse, crested navy blazer and cross tie.

Except for a handful of schools for young mothers or troubled boys, virtually all of the 98,000 public schools in the United States are co-ed.

But over the past five years, districts have been experimenting with single-gender classrooms -- and paying close attention to the results.

One test case is Woodward Avenue Elementary, 25 miles outside of Daytona Beach.

Five years ago, the school gave parents a choice: Enroll your kid in a single-gender or co-ed classroom. A team from Stetson University studied how the fourth-grade students fared on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in writing.

In the co-ed classrooms, 59 percent of girls passed the FCAT. In the single-gender classrooms, the number was 75 percent.

The split was even wider for boys. In co-ed classrooms, 37 percent of boys earned passing scores. In single-gender classrooms: 86 percent.

Why does it work?

Studies show that girls and boys are hard-wired differently -- and their brains develop at different rates.

“There is evidence that language skills develop faster in girls,” said University of Miami child psychologist Monica Dowling.

Sax, the national advocate for single-gender education, said benefits go beyond the academic realm. Girls who attend single-gender schools are less likely to use drugs and alcohol than girls at co-ed schools.

“The single-sex format is tremendously empowering for girls,” Sax said. For boys, it allows them to make high marks without being perceived as a nerd.

Still, the research is far from definitive. Some studies say single-gender schools are successful because they are small and can be selective. And some child psychologists caution against separating boys and girls, saying school should be a microcosm of society.