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Inside Philanthropy October 27, 2014
Alyssa Ochs

Single-gender education is certainly not a new concept, but the number of such schools is on the rise nationally, along with philanthropic support for them. One education site has cited this as among “the fastest-growing trends in the educational landscape of 21st-century America.”

Changes in federal law in 2006 served to encourage single-sex education, and this approach has been most notably embraced by charter schools. Over 500 public schools now offer some form of single-sex education, and over a 100 of these schools are exclusively single sex, up from just a handful of schools a decade ago.

Meanwhile, research has fueled interest in the subject. For example, the National Education Association (NEA) has pointed out that girls who learn in all-girl environments are believed to be more comfortable responding to questions and sharing their opinions in class and more likely to explore subjects such as math, science, and technology. Other research has demonstrated benefits to boys.

And while critics of single-sex education cite research showing its drawbacks, and have also pushed back against this educational approach on constitutional grounds, the trend keeps growing.

The larger backdrop here is a growing effort to address the social and economic challenges facing young people in gender-specific ways. On the male side of the ledger, you’ll find My Brother’s Keeper, the White House initiative on young men and boys of color, as well as other, more local efforts. Meanwhile, any number of efforts aim to empower girls, both in the United States and globally, and this is a red hot interest among funders these days.

Texas is one state where single-sex education has made major strides, thanks to help from local funders.

Back in 2001, Texas philanthropists Lee and Sally Posey learned about a new single-sex, college-prep public school in New York City and wanted to replicate its success closer to home. They partnered with the Dallas Independent School District to open the first all-girls public school in Texas, the Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School.

Single-sex education has come a long way in Texas since then. Near the center of the push is the Young Women’s Preparatory Network, formerly the Foundation for the Education of Young Women. After starting in Dallas, Young Women’s Prep has opened schools in Austin, San Antonio, Lubbock, Fort Worth, Houston and Grand Prairie. All of these schools focus on STEM education with core values of leadership, college readiness, and wellness life skills.

A range of funders have backed the organization, and none more so than the Dallas Foundation, which has given Young Women’s Prep nearly $2.5 million since 2007. Other funders who’ve kicked in support include the Boone Family Foundation, the O’Donnell Foundation, the Hillcrest Foundation, the Rees-Jones Foundation, and the Harold Simmons Foundation.

Young Women’s Prep CEO, Lynn McBee describes her network of schools as kind of like an in-district charter. A large percentage of these girls are economically disadvantaged and a big part of the group’s success lies in financial counseling to make paying for college more possible.

“I think we kind of removed that piece of them ever thinking that there’s a glass ceiling,” McBee said. “The fact that they can’t do something, it’s just not even on their radar.”

McBee says that she even sees parents of girls at these schools going back to school themselves after realizing what their daughters accomplished. Each of last year’s 146 Young Women’s Prep seniors graduated from high school, each was accepted into a four-year college or university, and the group received a more than $15.8 million in total scholarships.

Turning northward, single-sex education has been thriving in New York. This fall, Public Prep, a network of girls charter schools in New York City, opened an all-boys elementary charter school in the Bronx.

Funders behind Public Prep include the New York Community Trust, the Carson Family Trust, the Charter School Growth Fund, and the two foundations of retired financier Julian Robertson, the Robertson Foundation and the Tiger Foundation.

In 2009, the Walton Family Foundation dropped over $5 million on a single-sex charter school network in the Albany area, Brighter Choice Charter Schools. Walton has funded single-sex charters in other places, too.