Kathleen Brennan has a theory as to why most of the valedictorians from Washington's private and public schools this year are female: "For a long time, guys have been considered the ones to be more academic, especially in the math and sciences, and now that girls realize they have that option, too, they are exercising that option and excelling."

Brennan is one of 17 distinguished graduates -- they're not always valedictorians -- from the city's private schools. Fourteen of those top students are female. There's a similar ratio this year in the city's public high schools.

Brennan, 18, is the valedictorian of Northwest Washington's Field School and plans to attend Yale University in the fall. She senses the same heightened commitment and interest from girls toward athletics. "In my mom's generation, the only athletic thing she could do was cheerleading."

Not so for Brennan, who played three varsity sports -- soccer, basketball and lacrosse. "At Field, the girls are often more intense about their athletics than the guys are," she said. "It could just be here, or it could be {girls} finally having the option and just wanting to take the most advantage of the opportunity that you can."

Annie Kneedler, of Georgetown Day School, won the Director's Award, which is based on academics and other activities. In the fall, she will attend Dartmouth College, where she hopes to study anthropology and medicine. "My goal is to be a doctor in developing countries," she said. "Africa would be my dream, but I'll go anywhere. I went to Kenya last summer and just fell in love with it."

Alexis Linguere Gorden, 17, was valedictorian at St. John's College High School. "I think it's really strange," she said. "At my school, in the past it's been boys at the top, and this year it was mostly girls in the top 10."

Gorden is the first female valedictorian in the history of St. John's, which converted to a coeducational school five years ago. "It's nice to set a precedent like that," she said.

Kneedler and Gorden both said girls still were in the minority in their advanced math and science classes. One reason for that, Gorden said, may be teachers' expectations. "I think the teachers expect the boys to do better in math and sciences, and the girls pretty much to do better in English and history."

Gorden plans to become a physician. "I will probably major in human biology as an undergraduate and then go to medical school."

To Susan Mangels, assistant director of Oakcrest School in Northwest Washington, the statistics are a sign of intellectual equality. "In the long view, you probably would see a kind of evening-out because there is no disparity in men and women in terms of intellect and will," she said.

High school girls still have the edge in "seriousness of purpose" over boys, Mangels said. "Probably developmentally as teenagers, girls tend to mature a little faster. That's what I see. I don't think there is a difference in seriousness in men and women by the time they get out of college."

Some see no significance in this year's bumper crop of female valedictorians.

"I think it's just a statistical anomaly," said Dave Mullen, headmaster at Washington Ethical High School. "Last year, our top academic student was a boy."

Brian Tighe, who graduated from Gonzaga with highest honors, wouldn't even venture a guess about the year's lopsided ratio. "Gonzaga is an all-male school," he said, "so I guess that would be one statistic that remains steady."