All-boys schools were last in the national spotlight in 2018, when the nation was riveted by the Senate confirmation hearings of Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Trump. Kavanaugh was accused of a sexual assault while he was a student at an all-male Jesuit high school in suburban Maryland; he denied it and was confirmed to the court.
A slew of stories in the media then scrutinized the culture of all-boys schools and discussed the “toxic masculinity” that can be promoted in some of them.
So what are schools for boys doing these days — besides trying to avoid being part of the latest scandal?
This is a look at what some of them are doing. The author is Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff, a freelance writer and playwright who has penned some extraordinary pieces for The Washington Post.
She wrote this about her struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and this piece about how obsessive-compulsive disorder affected the life of one young man and his struggles to get through school. In another post for this blog, she wrote about a mother who realized that her young son — who threw a computer at his teacher in second grade — was mentally ill and the help she got him and other children. And she wrote why the only charter school in Princeton, N.J., had become a flash point. In another piece, she wrote about controversies in schools over what plays are acceptable for students to stage.
By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
If there is one statement about boys schools we may all agree upon, it’s that most of us will never set foot in one. The population they educate, and by extension the faculty, staff and families comprising their communities, is small compared with the K-12 population at large. Of the roughly 117,000 students who attend private schools, enrollment at boys schools makes up only 2.4 percent, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.
And yet, these schools and their students have gotten a lot of attention lately. Maybe I’m not the only one to ask, “What else are these institutions doing — besides trying to avoid being a part of the latest scandal?”
It was a blunt question, but one I posed to Rik Dugan at the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart. To my surprise, the head of this boys school not only wanted to answer, but also invited me in to talk.
Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart is set off from a well-traveled road, on 43 acres of land with a collection of stone buildings, the first of which was built in the 1930s as a private home. This remoteness, which feeds our collective imaginations of what elite schools for wealthy boys represent, is part of the challenge in understanding what happens there on day-to-day basis.
When I met with Dugan, who has been head of school since 2015, he said that while the school educates boys as young as kindergarten, what they are really doing is “educating 30-year-old men who happen to be 6.” The foundation for developing “compassionate and courageous young men” who understand different models of masculinity is a process started in boyhood. Waiting to teach those lessons until the boys were 18 was too late, he said.
Each day starts with a handshake, an official welcome to what Dugan calls a “safe space.” Before classes begin, boys head outside for a morning run. In the early grades, a lot of time is spent teaching students “to care for others and build relationships in a positive way,” Dugan said.
Kindergarten students have two class guinea pigs. First-graders care for a parakeet and a toad. Second-grade students study the emperor penguin and model the male’s care for its offspring by carrying an egg in a pouch. And on Fridays, gratitude for human relationships is given full attention, with a schoolwide assembly during which boys express “thank-yous” to those they appreciate.
Paris McLean, the head of lower school, said he tries to lead the boys in “brave conversations” moving from diversity to inclusivity. The school is above the national average for independent schools for enrollment of students of color and those who receive tuition assistance, with over 40 percent receiving grants. McLean said he addresses the impact words have on others, unraveling, for example, the phrase, “I was just joking,” and exploring what it means to be a man in terms of “race and sexual identity.” He also teaches mindfulness and ways to deal with emotions, telling students it’s okay if “you want to cry.” He has done it himself at assembly, he said, moved by joy as well as frustration.
Joann Messina, whose oldest son graduated two years ago and whose youngest is in sixth grade, said gender became a “non-factor” at school because everyone was a boy. Instead of falling into a category, her sons were “free to be individuals,” she said. Her oldest developed an interest in reading fiction and writing poetry, and both sons are good writers, possessing a confidence in their abilities that, as an assistant English professor, she sees lacking in many young men she teaches.
Boys schools have faced increased scrutiny before, of course. In the late 1980s, leaders met in what would become the International Boys’ School Coalition (IBSC), responding to what they perceived as an uncertain future in the wake of Title IX coeducation policy. Brad Gioia, headmaster at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville and vice chair for the Americas for IBSC, said the 2018 Senate confirmation hearings on Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination — during which the judge denied an accusation that he had committed a sexual assault while in high school — highlighted issues on many administrators’ minds today.
“There is a very conscientious effort among a lot of boys schools to talk about these topics,” he said. In particular, there is a focus on a broader sense of masculinity, one that is more “humane and compassionate” than it used to be, he said.
Montgomery Bell Academy may be best known outside educational circles for being the inspiration for Tom Schulman’s “Dead Poets Society.” But the hierarchy of 30 or 40 years ago no longer defines a student’s sense of belonging, Gioia said. It is not uncommon for a football player to also be in theater or chorus, and a boy who is gay “is very much embraced.”
Society must face what have become “man issues,” Dugan said, noting the higher percentage of boys and men associated with school shootings and suicide. He believes he’s part of a “national reinvention of boys schools,” to help boys feel whole instead of “hollow” and disconnected.
At Boys’ Latin in Baltimore, students spent one day in April learning about healthy relationships and identifying the warning signs of relationship violence. It’s an event they’ve held for the past five years, initiated by a campus student group that partnered with the One Love Foundation, created by Sharon Love, mother of Yeardley Love, a college senior who was beaten by her boyfriend and died in 2010.
Can a boys school respond to the wake-up calls of #MeToo and #Timesup, expand the conversation about masculinity and violence, and find space to support boys and the problems they face? Jason Robinson, who became head of St. Albans School in the District last year, addressed this dilemma in a speech at the annual parents dinner this January.
“…there is a complex duality to their (boys) status in modern society. Even as they continue to benefit from structural and systemic advantages — and even as our society undergoes a long-overdue reckoning with male sexual misconduct — boys face a distinctive set of challenges that are often underappreciated by society and are therefore difficult to talk about in an open and emotionally honest way"...
As boys better understand their privileges and the corresponding challenges faced by female peers in a patriarchal society, they must not be forsaken as unworthy of particular attention, sympathy or support, he argued. Robinson emphasized a belief I heard from every head of a boys school I reached: This moment of cultural reckoning is the ideal time for all-boys education.
But the debate over the academic benefits of single-sex education — a topic that came to the fore again with a 2006 reinterpretation of Title IX that allowed separating students by sex for particular subjects — is less about character development and more about neuroscience.
Advocates cite evidence that the brains of boys and girls develop differently, as seen in MRI scans, as supporting single-sex education. Other researchers note the shortcomings of such studies and the cherry-picking of evidence. A 2014 meta-analysis comparing effects of single-sex schooling to coeducational, found that any increase in student achievement or academic interest was “trivial” or “nonexistent.”
Diane Halpern, professor of psychology emerita at Claremont McKenna College, whose work has focused on sex differences and cognitive abilities, said it’s “easy to find one study that goes one way or another.” Valuable data, in contrast, comes from looking at meta-analysis, she said. She and five co-authors argued there “there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism,” in a 2011 paper, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling.”
It seems the one lesson that can be learned from asking the heads of boys schools “what are you doing?” is that they are keenly aware of the fact that history will judge how they handle this moment. Perhaps the second lesson is that this question should not be reserved for heads of boys schools.
What are we doing?
And what can we learn from each other?
Any culture that is corrupted by money, or bad power, or lack of upstanders who can be “courageous enough and forceful enough to say, ‘No, these things are wrong, and this is what’s right and we need more of that,’ ” will suffer, Gioia said.
It takes constant work, he said.
The latest story of corrupted culture, as outlined in the reporting about “rape attics” in fraternity houses, comes from Swarthmore College, one of the first coeducational colleges in the country. Documents showed a history of abuses, and students staged sit-ins, prompting the current members of the fraternities to dissolve their local chapters.
In a Facebook post, members of Phi Psi wrote that while they were in middle or high school at the time the documented events took place, “We cannot in good conscience be members of an organization with such a painful history. … We condemn sexual violence, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and discrimination in all of its forms, and we will continue as individuals to work to create a campus where these issues are eradicated completely. We hope that our decision will help the campus achieve transformative justice for those who have been harmed and promote institutional healing.”