"Hello," the seventh-grader said with a vigorous handshake. "I'm a Gus Garcia man."
The tomato sauce stain on his silver tie didn’t detract from his professional demeanor, which was impressive for a middle schooler on a Monday morning.
Around half of the 400 or so students at Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy were waiting for their weekly "house" meeting to begin. The system is reminiscent of Harry Potter's Hogwarts: Kids are divided into houses and receive points and prizes for good behavior every six weeks. Blazers and ties — purple for sixth-graders, silver for seventh, purple-silver for eighth, gold for students who go above and beyond — are provided free of charge but not required. ("We want the uniforms to be to be a privilege, not a punishment," one faculty member explained.) Most kids were wearing them.
Sterlin McGruder, the charismatic principal of Gus Garcia, which is only four months old, walked around the cafeteria energetically greeting teachers and students like a talk show host warming up a crowd. After a "fresh and clean" check, during which the boys were encouraged to say good morning to each other and fix one another's ties, McGruder introduced a PowerPoint presentation on “table manners for gentlemen.” Past Monday meeting topics include breast cancer awareness and “how to tie a tie.”
"What is etiquette?" McGruder asked, reading off the screen projector. "Etiquette is the fruit of manners and it deals directly with kindness, consideration, elegance, style, and swag."
"Swag is the most important," he said. "There are a couple of things we need to understand as men."
One, for example, is that men should always trail behind women at formal dinners, since women often wear high heels at fancy events and thus risk falling over. "It's about being a gentleman," McGruder said.
The boys nodded dutifully, and without slouching, as they had been instructed.
For years, Garcia and its “sister” school, Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy, formerly known as James E. Pearce middle school, were considered some of the worst schools in Texas. Former teachers and the state education commissioner publicly criticized Pearce’s performance. During the 2013–2014 academic year, Pearce ranked worse than 98.5% of middle schools in Texas on state test performance, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Ask kids and teachers who attended or taught at both schools, and they’ll all say something had to be done. “It was a dirty school,” said 15-year-old Hamza, a former Pearce student now in ninth grade who said he felt uncomfortable and distracted there because of “all the fighting and sex stuff” that went on. “Kids were even having sex in the bathrooms. At one point, it got so bad that I really didn’t even want to go there anymore.”
In August 2014, after years of district debate, Pearce and Garcia reopened as two single-sex middle schools. Aside from the fancy new names, the schools now offer their predominantly low-income, minority students uniforms and an “inclusive atmosphere that is free of some of the social distractions that exist in mixed-gender classrooms,” according to the Austin Independent School District’s website.
More vague are the mysterious “gender-specific strategies” the district says it now employs. According to proponents, sex segregation will provide kids — nearly all of whom are economically disadvantaged students of color — with a fighting chance to get a college degree. Plus, the district says, students who choose to attend the schools “will learn respect, responsibility, and honor.” Many parents who opted to send their kids to the new schools say they’re already happy with the results.
“I love this school,” said Maria Ortega, whose 12-year-old daughter attends Bertha Sadler Means. “It teaches girls that they don’t just have to get married and stay home.”
Yet critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), say the single-sex schools are illegal.
On Monday, in response to what it said were “numerous inquiries” about the legality of single-sex classes, the Department of Education issued new clarifying guidelines for K–12 schools. Those that choose to offer single-sex classes must be clear about their goals (“improving academic achievement” counts), ensure that enrollment is completely voluntary, and conduct periodic evaluations every two years, among other mandates. Clearest of all: Schools must “avoid relying on gender stereotypes.”
The guidance "offers a long-awaited, much-needed course-correction for school districts across the country” and "makes clear that such programs violate [federal gender equity law] Title IX, because generalizations about boys' and girls' interests and learning styles cannot be used to justify the use of different teaching methods for male and female students." the ACLU said in a statement.
The ACLU has filed lawsuits against many of these districts, in places where public schools and even youth detention centers have launched single-sex classes based on the premise of hardwired gender differences. There are currently complaints pending in Florida, Idaho, and Wisconsin; the ACLU has successfully settled complaints in Alabama, Louisiana, and West Virginia.
In September, the ACLU filed a complaint asking the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate the Austin Independent School District for unlawful sex and racial discrimination against students. The ACLU believes the district is so desperate to turn around failing schools that they’re experimenting based on little more than the assumption that boys and girls learn differently — with their young, low-income students as lab rats.
The complaint also argues that students were automatically assigned to the programs without a “meaningful opportunity” to opt out. The district disputes that claim — in September, it released a statement saying it had addressed the ACLU’s objections before the change was implemented.
According to the ACLU’s complaint, in order to prepare for the split, administrators attended training sessions with names like “Teaching the Male Brain” and “Sugar and Spice and EVERYTHING Nice? Classroom Strategies for All-Girls.” They were told that boys and girls have inherent developmental differences that impact their learning styles. For example, they learned that girls absorb information better in warmer classrooms and are better at hearing than boys, who need teachers to speak more loudly than they do in all-girl classes.
The complaint claims that administrators read books written by sex-differentiated teaching specialists who believe that boys are better at math because their bodies receive daily jolts of testosterone, while girls have equal skills only “a few days per month” when they experience “increased estrogen during the menstrual cycle.” Some of these so-called experts believe boys should be given Nerf baseball bats to release tension and assigned books with “strong male characters who take dramatic action to change the world” instead of “touchy-feely” books with “weak, disabled male characters.” On the other hand, teachers should allow girls to take their shoes off to decrease stress, and give them “concrete manipulatives to touch and otherwise sense, especially when science is being taught.”
Officials at the schools, composed of 97.4% and 94.1% Latino and black schoolchildren, respectively, learned that black boys in particular are more likely to be “aggressive” and “not as neat” — although it was unclear whom they were being compared with.
Some of the country’s top-performing schools are single-sex — but those are often storied private schools with hefty endowments, involved parents, and motivated teachers.
“What’s happening in the public school system looks nothing like single-sex education at private schools and colleges,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.
The Bush administration introduced broad regulations in 2006 that allowed public schools to expand single-sex schools and classes as long as enrollment is voluntary and classes are of “substantially equal” quality.
Since then, more and more struggling schools have turned to single-sex schooling. It’s estimated that thousands of U.S. public schools now offer single-sex academic classes; the National Association for Choice in Education (formerly the National Association for Single Sex Public Education) refused to disclose that data to BuzzFeed News.
Just like abstinence-only sex education — which Texas continues to pour money into despite having one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country — single-sex education is not backed up by science.
A recent comprehensive study of 1.6 million students in grades K–12 from 21 nations found no advantage to single-sex schooling. It also found that single-sex schooling reinforces negative stereotypes, as did an oft-cited 2011 report published in Science, “The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling.” Any benefit from single-sex education, the authors say, are from variables like discipline policies or parent engagement.
Single-sex schooling “looks like a quick fix for low-income kids, but it’s all junk,” said Diane Halpern, Dean of Social Sciences at Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute and former president of the American Psychological Association, as well as the lead author of the 2011 study. “Data simply doesn’t support that this is a superior way to teach. Instead it says that boys and girls are fundamentally different based on gender stereotypes.”
The single-sex schools approach is based in large part on the work of Dr. Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Choice in Education and author of Boys Adrift, Girls on the Edge, and Why Gender Matters. He's known as the the “Al Gore of the gender crisis” to his fans. His critics say he has popularized the reinforcement of outdated stereotypes.
The ACLU’s “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” initiative has been “very profitable” for the organization, Sax told BuzzFeed News, without explaining how. (The ACLU is a nonprofit.) “It’s a good moneymaker.” In an email, he elaborated: “Many successful programs which were engaging and empowering students from low-income households have been shut down as a consequence of bullying from the ACLU and other organizations.”
Sax, a family physician who quit his medical practice in 2008 to focus on the push for single-sex public education options but returned to his practice full-time this year, said the goal should be to let parents choose the best format for their child’s education.
“A parent can usually tell you with great accuracy whether their son or daughter will do better [in a co-ed classroom],” he said. “It doesn’t cost the district anything. You can create a boys classroom and a girls classroom at zero cost and let parents have a choice.”
But administrators who create single-sex classes spend a significant amount of money on training and materials, the ACLU says; a recent complaint in Hillsborough, Florida, found that the school district paid over $100,000 to consultants, including Sax. (The Austin Independent School District says its costs were largely covered by private grants.)
Both faculty and students at the two new Austin schools are thrilled about the changes and confused about why the ACLU wants to put a halt to the progress they’ve already made. They don’t believe the changes are sexist or racist — most of the initiative’s strongest supporters are people of color. At Gus Garcia, there is intense focus on what it means to be a gentleman and a leader. At Bertha Sadler Means, students are encouraged to be risk-takers, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.
“It’s not about boys learning this way and girls learning this way,” said Cheryl Bradley, a former Austin school district trustee who successfully fought to convert the two ailing middle schools into single-sex campuses. “What we did is we change the learning environment. Because it just wasn’t working the way it was. We cannot continue to do the same thing and fail at it and not try to do something new to be successful.”
Bradley, who is black, calls the ACLU’s lawsuit misguided. “Sometimes we need protecting from the people who are supposedly trying to protect us,” she said.
Gus Garcia’s airy, eco-friendly campus, which opened its doors just seven years ago, is plastered with posters of strapping young men in football uniforms next to the school’s motto: “Boys yesterday. Young Men Today. Leaders Tomorrow!” The leaders-to-be can straighten their ties between classes when they walk by a full-length mirror that reminds them, “This is what people see when they look at ‘You.’”
The school creed begins with “I am a young man / I am my brother’s keeper” and ends with “I will be a college man, a global citizen, and a life-long learner / I will be your friend / Your brother, and your leader / I look good / I feel good / I AM a GUS GARCIA MAN!” School assemblies involve a significant amount of synchronized fist-pumping.
At Bertha Sadler Means’ campus, founded in 1953, pale purple lockers are decorated with pastel paper chains that “promote unity and working together through tough social and emotional learning,” according to Principal Ivette Savina, prim in a polka-dotted blouse and pumps, an almost too-perfect contrast to McGruder’s buddy-buddy style. Girls read on cozy couches in the library and bounce on green exercise balls during math class, because, one teacher said, studies show the balls “improve brain engagement.”
Posters with sayings such as “Keep Calm and Organize Your Binder” and “You are valuable don’t let anyone make you believe differently” line the halls, along with a mural of a girl reading under a tree. Hearts, flowers, butterflies, and ballerinas fly out of her book.
Both Savina and McGruder display some of the books written by the purported single-sex experts decried in the ACLU’s lawsuit in their offices, but neither believes in the authors’ most audacious claims, such as the idea that testosterone makes boys better at math.
“There isn’t anything weird like that [here],” said Savina. “We just want to know the best conditions for our students, how to connect them with academics. We want it to be a safe environment for asking questions.”
McGruder said he didn’t think single-sex schools were best for all children but that “all students learn differently, and parents should have a choice.”
Before moving to Austin, McGruder was the principal of another all-boys school in Grand Prairie. His experience taught him to be inclusive of LGBTQ students and not to make “misogynist assumptions,” he said. But there are non-academic lessons he believes are easier to teach boys in an all-male environment, from personal hygiene to how to talk to police.
It’s particularly frustrating when critics call the schools racist and sexist, said McGruder, who is black. “The community itself knows what its students need,” he said, “and we are losing our young men. Especially our young men of color. A lot of times we have to play mother and father.”
He introduced me to an eighth-grader named Zachary who said he was a house leader, head of the yearbook committee, and a football player. “I’m basically that guy,” he said, without a hint of a smile. But last year, Zachary said, he was failing “because there were girls and I got off task, trying to flirt with them.” Now, he said, he’s on the honor roll.
Zachary also feels a lot of pride in his school. He’s excited to spend more time with girls in ninth grade, but also plans to “keep my head in the game and make sure I still do my work.”
Zachary might be “that guy,” but dozens of kids at both schools said they were happier since the switch. At their old schools, girls said, they were too afraid to raise their hands in math class or participate in P.E. Now they are free to dance around at lunchtime and laugh loudly without worrying what boys think.
“There are no boys to interrupt us now,” said a seventh-grader named Brianna. “There’s no drama.”
Most of the teachers at the schools are brand-new, but some who stuck around said the change was unbelievable, even this early in the year.
“I think the kids needed more structure,” said Stephanie Grizzle, a caseworker for Communities in Schools, a nonprofit housed inside Gus Garcia. “Last year kids cussed at teachers and basically ran the school. Now it’s night and day. The new teachers came in with authority and really put rules in place. Kids say they are less distracted. I don’t know how to explain it, but the whole environment just feels...lighter.”
Bradley, the former district trustee, doesn’t understand how anyone could argue against all that. “These schools were failing,” Bradley said. “They want to talk about racism? We had children of color in failing institutions. Education is a civil right.”
But the ACLU and other critics say students also have the right to an equitable education — and that it’s irresponsible to experiment on at-risk students without good data just because the bar is so low.
When University of Texas psychology professor Rebecca Bigler analyzed the purported success of the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, an all-girls middle and high school in Austin often praised by district representatives, she found that the school was run more like a magnet program than a public school.
She and her co-authors of 2011 study “The Efficacy of Single-Sex Education: Testing for Selection and Peer Quality Effects” looked at the scores of Ann Richards students alongside the scores of unsuccessful applicants and concluded that "it is overall peer quality, rather than the gender composition of the schools, that explains single-sex school students' outperformance of coeducational school students."
In other words, higher test scores were a result of a selective admissions process, which means that schools like Bertha Sadler Means and Gus Garcia that accept all students who want to attend wouldn’t likely be able to replicate those high test scores. Other schools that the district cites as models, such as Chicago Urban Prep, are better funded than East Austin’s schools, she said.
Bigler said she doesn’t doubt that students and teachers are happier due to initiatives that foster community and respect between teachers and students. But, she said, it’s harmful to conflate those approaches with gender norms.
“Increasing stereotyping is not going to increase academic performance,” she said. “When you have a problem with sexism you don’t remove the sex. You remove the ism.”
Bigler worries about kids learning that “all boys dominate, tease, and harass."
“What you’re basically saying is that you have a problem with sexual harassment, so let’s remove all boys to protect you, even though many boys are warm, supportive, and helpful,” she said.
Boys who say they’re too distracted by girls need to train themselves not to be, she said. “Women have breasts. You have to learn to concentrate. You might as well learn it when you’re 12.”
Bigler acknowledged that it’s easier to remove children from each other than trying to change — but said it’s sexist and racist to assume Austin's middle schoolers can’t handle integration. “It takes an effort to change a culture and make respectful, supportive relationships, but women have to learn to talk in front of men and men have to learn to support their colleagues.”
Many teachers acknowledged that it was a relief to begin the school year with such low expectations. “We don’t have a lot to prove,” said Dorothy Wiese, a math teacher at Bertha Sadler Means. “It’s awesome.”
The district did provide some auspicious data: There was a 33% drop in disciplinary referrals at the boys’ academy during the first six weeks, compared to the first six weeks at Garcia Middle school prior to the switch. Fewer girls were failing English and math after six weeks than the district’s middle-school average in those subjects.
But Garcia’s boys are still failing English at worse rates than the district’s middle-school average. And the attendance rate at Sadler Means is one of the lowest of all the middle schools in the district.
Overall, enrollment at the campuses dropped nearly 25% this year. Both principals said they could comfortably double their student bodies, and expect to do so in years to come. But critics say the low numbers are evidence that most members of the community aren’t interested in single-sex schools.
“Boys and girls like being around each other,” Bigler said. “It seems unfair that these schools are teaching kids that they’ll only get special attention if they separate.”
Although dozens of students said they were happy with the switch, the changes they pointed to often had less to do with the fact that their school was single-sex than that it was simply a better school.
“Last year, the teachers didn’t care about us,” said an eighth-grader named Daryl. “They just cared about their paycheck.”
“I think the teachers and the students both gave up,” his friend Devin agreed. “Now students have learned they don’t need to give up on making an effort.”
The new teachers underwent de-escalation training and are careful about treating their students with respect, McGruder said. There’s an active Parent Teacher Association for the first time. Thanks to the Harry Potter-like house system — which the girls’ school also uses — and the uniforms, kids are proud to go to school.
But no adult — from trustees to the superintendent to the principals to the teachers — seems willing to separate those completely unrelated initiatives from human biology. And if they won’t, it’s hard to imagine the kids experiencing the changes firsthand will, either.
During the “table manners for gentlemen” presentation, the Gus Garcia men learned a lot of helpful tips: Use the “itty-bitty” fork for salads, don’t double dip, refrain from making small talk about politics or religion, and never order the most expensive item on the menu. A photo of Nicki Minaj illustrated a slide on how it is disrespectful to the chef to ask for salt, pepper, or other condiments before tasting first.
“It is also disrespectful to order steak well done,” said McGruder. “At least order it medium well.”
Before the students were let go, a science teacher made an announcement about upcoming state tests. “Garcia is getting a lot of positive attention,” she said. “There’s a lot of change going on. Test scores prove we are not just changing our look and our act. We are changing our academics. I’m looking to shut these scores down. Are we clear?”
For Bradley, that’s a foregone conclusion.
“What we are doing is great for kids and we are seeing the benefits of it and it is amazing to see what has transpired in just a short period of time,” Bradley said. “I can’t help how people feel. All I know is I have to deliver the best academic experience for kids. If people want to crucify me for that, let them.”