When you're a 10-year-old girl, you can't decide whether to be a veterinarian, an author or a hair stylist. When you're a 10-year-old girl, you can talk about Leonardo da Vinci and Leonardo de Caprio in the same lunch period and none of your friends look at you funny. When you're a 10-year-old girl, you have no idea how much you will miss being 10.
Educators long ago learned that sometime after fifth grade, many girls start to underplay their talents, abilities and ambitions. The reasons vary from the psychological to the hormonal to the social, with notable research questioning whether co-ed classes are a factor. Do boys overwhelm the girls with their boisterousness and confidence? Or do girls just roll their eyes and opt for raising their grades more than raising their hands?
In either case, one outcome is that girls tend to stop participating, questioning, challenging and wondering out loud.
That's what the new Laura Jeffrey Academy seeks to counter. It's Minnesota's first public "girl-focused" charter school, meaning that it's geared toward creating confidence and competency among girls in science, technology, engineering and math. Founder Cindy Reuther believes that's best accomplished without boys in the classroom, although the school is open to male enrollment.
"We want girls to be able to create better relationships with boys and better be able to negotiate a gendered world," Reuther said. "Competence and confidence -- that's the big thing."
Reuther, 46, describes herself as a "big idealist" who years ago dreamed of founding a girls' school. She notes that Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi each have a girls' school education in their backgrounds. Now, so do these students:
• Rochelle Van der Merwe, 10, St. Paul, who's inspired: "I really like the idea of all-girl because it's a better learning environment and you can achieve more in a day, not being interrupted. And we're learning things that are actually interesting."
• Jennifer Sanchez, 11, St. Paul, who's grateful: "Now I can do something and not be in a rush. This school is so organized."
• Jai'Wana-Carrie Clay, 10 Maplewood, who's engaged: "I couldn't focus in my old school. Big bullies were harassing me. This gives us more information and you're not just sitting and hearing what the teacher is saying. In my old school, I fell asleep."
• Leah O'Neil, 10, St. Paul, who's happier: "Teachers are in good spirits when I come in every morning, and all the girls get to know each other."
• Isabella Rolland, 10, St. Paul, who's relieved: "Nobody is the odd one out; everyone is included."
The names on the lockers tell the tale: Rosalita, Happy-Sarah, Matiea, Taylor, Riga, Katherine, Irina, Mairead, Shaayla Rae, Jenna. Granted, the lockers are dinged-up and the hallway floors have seen better days, but the classrooms have a fresh coat of paint and are equipped with state-of-the art computers and laptops. Like any elementary school, there are bowls of goldfish, stacks of worksheets and Monday morning check-ins about everyone's weekend. ("Loud and proud, loud and proud," a teacher coaxed one soft-spoken girl.)
The academy is housed in the Church of St. Thomas More near Macalester College. Reuther spent several years seeking the right place, and the college connection seemed fated because Macalester also is where namesake Laura Jeffrey attended school in the 1930s. Jeffrey was the only African-American student and among the few women in her class. She graduated with honors and became one of the first African-American librarians in the St. Paul library system. Jeffrey died in 2003.
Looking for "Aha!"
In Wendy Braun's GTT class -- Gateway to Technology -- the girls are studying engineering by creating simple machines such as levers, pulleys and wedges. Once completed, they'll put them all in a row in a sort of Rube Goldberg extravaganza. But first, there are puzzles to confront. "They're becoming problem-solvers," Braun said, "but even more, are learning that you have to persevere through problems. We talk about, 'What did it feel like to succeed?' and 'What did it feel like to struggle?' There are a lot of 'ahas' in here."
Well and good, but to the bottom line: Do girls get a better education when boys are absent?
The original 1992 study by the American Association of University Women documented how girls gradually fell behind boys, especially in math and science, and inspired the all-girl education movement. Yet a follow-up study in 1998 found that girls in single-gender classes showed no measurable improvement in grades, and some educators deemed the innovation unnecessary. In other words, it may depend upon how "better" is defined.
Grades are important, and Laura Jeffrey's education director, Maggie Knutson, said the charter school, like others, administers all of the standardized tests under No Child Left Behind. But the school's motto, "Asking questions, making choices," is about becoming critical thinkers and confident participants, traits whose mastery isn't necessarily reflected on report cards.
"We want to develop a habit of thinking like a scholar, but also the habit of thinking like a citizen," Knutson said. "We talk a lot about how do you maintain your individuality in a community and at the same time create a cohesive community," Knutson said. "It gives me chills just thinking about some of these ideas."
Laura Jeffrey Academy is sponsored by the Audubon Center of the North Woods, which sponsors more than a dozen charter schools throughout Minnesota that emphasize project-based education, a curriculum in which students work on complex questions in groups over time. The schools also focus on environmental education. For this initial year, Laura Jeffrey has 98 students in grades five and six. Grade seven will be added next fall and grade eight a year later. There are two teachers for every 25 students. Uniforms are casual -- polo shirts, hoodies or T-shirts imprinted with "Laura Jeffrey Academy" with dark, white or khaki bottoms.
The biggest adjustment for families is the school's year-round calendar of 45 days on and 15 days off, with a long December break and no school in August. "History is hard to change, but what we know is that the best practice for kids is not a nine-month calendar," Reuther said.
Fine, fine, but what about the biggest difference? What's it like to go to school without boys?
"It's so quiet," said Isabella Rolland. "I miss the noise."
"I don't!" said Rachel Van der Merwe.
Views may differ, but loudly and proudly.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185