Great Expectations
How 3 Great Schools promote best practices in boys' and girls' education
by Phil Gianficaro

Henry Fairfax, the director of admissions at The Haverford School, a private, all-male college preparatory day school on the Main Line, and a co-educational high school administrator were classmates in a master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania last year.


During a focus observation of the math program at The Haverford School, Fairfax and his colleague were paired in the same group in a calculus class at the upper school. As they looked on, the boys in the class were especially boisterous and rowdy, talking throughout the entire class. Fairfax’s colleague raised her hand and told the teacher she believed the lesson was being disrupted by such obnoxious boys.


Fairfax, a Haverford graduate, recalls the teacher saying to the colleague, “If you were listening to the boys, you’d know they were all talking about calculus. They were talking loudly because they were excited about calculus. It’s how boys learn.”


Science has proven that boys and girls learn differently; their differences are rooted in how their brains develop, operate and process information. A clearer understanding of these differences has paved the way for a unique approach to teaching, a reason why single-sex schools have been so successful.


Educators in local single-sex schools such as The Haverford School—as well The Baldwin School and The Agnes Irwin School, two private, all-girls schools also located on the Main Line—are dedicated to leveraging what other schools cannot: the distinct ways that boys and girls think and learn.


This trio of renowned, single-gender educational institutions is not officially interconnected other than a dove-tailed educational philosophy of promoting best practices in boys and girls learning. But they do share a common initiative: 3 Great Schools.


The Baldwin School has been nurturing and educating girls since its founding in 1888. The lower, middle and upper schools’ students derive an obvious benefit from a school that has an average class size of 15 and a student-teacher ratio of 7 to 1. The Baldwin Class of 2011 alone boasted 18 National Merit Scholars, National Latin Exam medalists, eight recruited collegiate athletes, Society of Women Engineers certificate holders and a community hero award.


“At Baldwin, we help girls develop an intellectual freedom and confidence they wouldn’t get in a co-ed setting,” says Sally Powell, head of school. “I’ve been in co-ed schools—I was the upper school director at Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey—so I can tell you first-hand the benefits of a single-sex school far outweigh those of a co-ed school. … Putting [boys and girls] together in the same classroom when we know one learns differently than the other holds them back.”


Parents of students considering enrolling their child in a single-sex school may understandably question what their child may miss in a social context by not being around members of the opposite sex on a daily basis. To allay their concerns at Baldwin, parents are directed to the students themselves.


“What I do to assure parents is give them as much exposure to the girls as I can,” says Sally Goebel, The Baldwin School’s director of admissions for the past 11 years. “In their own voices, our girls can talk to parents and show what remarkably confident and articulate young women they are in this setting, which is surprising for kids of this age.


“Our girls develop a sense of self in this all-girls setting that enables them to embrace whatever is out there. By not being in a co-ed setting, they don’t miss a thing. In fact, they thrive.”


The same philosophy is practiced at The Agnes Irwin School, an all-girls, nonsectarian day school for 680 students pre-kindergarten through grade 12. The school was founded in 1869 by its namesake, a great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin. Like The Baldwin School, The Agnes Irwin School has an average class size of 15 and a student-teacher ratio of 7 to 1.


“Girls achieve at Agnes Irwin because of the faculty and the comfortable learning environment,” says Dr. Mary F. Seppala, Agnes Irwin’s head of school. “The small classes and the interpersonal relationships between teachers and students are so beneficial. The value for young women is clear and explicit. Research bears that out in terms of math and science; girls do better in math and science in a single-sex environment. We’ve found that Agnes Irwin grads that come back to visit tell us that their college professors, after being around them for a time, know they were educated in a single-sex school.”


Opponents of single-sex schools wonder what social components boys and girls miss out on by not being together in class hour after hour and day after day.


“I’ve heard people say girls from single-sex schools won’t be able to function in the real world,” Dr. Seppala says. “But this is the real world. They’re living in their own skin here at Agnes Irwin, learning how to negotiate as a female. They know who they are when they’re here and when they leave here.”


In The Agnes Irwin School Class of 2011, 98 percent enrolled in four or more math courses (above the required three); 59 percent took calculus and AP calculus; 90 percent enrolled in four or more science courses; 33 percent took two or more AP science courses; 76 percent enrolled in foreign language in their senior year; and 61 percent of the class were designated AP Scholars, including three National AP Scholars.


Furthermore, the school’s most recent graduating class includes the sole U.S. winner of the Palmes Académiques Scholarship to study in France; 13 National Merit Scholarship recognitions, including a University Scholar; three Society of Women Engineers award winners; several National Greek and National Latin Exam winners; and seven recruited collegiate athletes, with 80 percent of the class enrolled at the most selective and highly selective colleges, per Barron’s 2011 guide. 


According to Sally Keidel, director of admissions and financial aid at Agnes Irwin, a major benefit to a single-sex education for young women involves taking greater risks.


“When girls are in a female-only classroom, they stretch out their comfort zone,” Keidel said. “They’re more likely to take the lead in a play and not worry about failing. It’s harder to do that in a co-ed school; I know [because] I worked in co-ed schools for 20 years. Also, in single-gender schools, you’re mentored by role models of the same gender.”


While there are specific advantages for girls attending single-sex school, the same holds true for boys. The Haverford School has been addressing those needs for boys in junior kindergarten through grade 12 since its founding in 1884. Like its 3 Great Schools counterparts, limited class size (16) and cozy student-to-teacher ratios (8 to 1) make for an attentive classroom.


Over the past five years, The Haverford School has sent 27 students to the University of Pennsylvania, and three graduates of the Class of 2010 were accepted at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


“I think there’s always been a high expectation attached to going to The Haverford School,” says Joseph T. Cox, Ph.D., headmaster at Haverford since 1998. “It has a good reputation as an academic school, but I’m not sure it’s what I’d hang our hat on in the sense that we do the best with boys who have lots of different talents. We understand that boys sometimes need a wider road. We strive to know their strengths and weaknesses. And that’s the advantage of a single-sex environment for boys. Our teachers can really get to know every boy.”


Dr. Cox believes his own son would have benefited from a single-sex education.


“My son was a good athlete who played football and lacrosse,” he says. “He also played violin, but never let his friends know he played it. He was embarrassed. We used to have him take lessons on the other side of the mountain so no one would know. … Here at Haverford, that talent would have been viewed as one of his strengths. He and the school would have embraced that talent.”


At The Haverford School, the faculty teaches with the knowledge that boys are statistically behind girls in fine motor skills, handwriting and language arts, and they make a concerted effort to help boys in reading by employing reading specialists.


It’s been written that part of what single-sex schools do is redress historic and historical inequities; another part is to minimize the distractions that come from mixing the sexes; and a final ingredient is to address gender differences in learning.


The Haverford School, The Baldwin School and The Agnes Irwin School accomplish all three for their students—in the classroom, on the stage and in the athletic arena. And that, in part, is what makes them great.


Contact information:

The Haverford School

450 Lancaster Ave.

Haverford, PA 19041



The Baldwin School

701 W. Montgomery Ave.

Bryn Mawr, PA 19010



The Agnes Irwin School

Ithan Avenue and Conestoga Road

Rosemont, PA 19010



Phil Gianficaro is an award-winning writer based in Doylestown.