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A Place Where Girls Can Be All That They Can Be

December 01, 1996|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mr. Feldman's eighth-grade algebra class has been working on a single problem for close to 10 minutes. It is a difficult problem with several possible answers, but the students are not discouraged.

Can X equal -1? How about +1? If X is zero, then what is its square root?

And . . . isn't that Mozart?

In Abe Feldman's math classes, there is always music. On this bright autumn day, it is Mozart's concerto for clarinet--transposed for bassoon because the clarinet is "simply too shrill" for the study of integers.

"Music makes us smarter," explains Sarah Wallace, 12. "Mr. Feldman believes it. And we believe it too. We're going to try Vivaldi next."

At the Archer School for Girls, the last thing you'll find is a predictable algebra lesson. Or art lesson, or music class, or history discussion.

Here at one of the newest--and, some say, boldest--girls schools of the decade, learning does not always proceed as one might expect. And that, say founders of the 18-month-old middle school, is just as it should be.

What began last fall with 39 girls in a renovated dance studio across from the Pacific Palisades post office has evolved into a plan to install the school in the elegant old Eastern Star mansion in Brentwood and, by 2001, to enroll 450 girls in grades six through 12.

"Archer is riding the crest of a wonderful wave of enthusiasm for girls education," says Meg Moulton, executive director of the Boston-based National Coalition for Girls' Schools. "Until the 1990s, there wasn't such a receptive climate for girls schools. But the flood of research showing how girls--especially those in sixth through eighth grades--can benefit from this experience has brought a welcome shift in focus to the special needs of girls."

Last week, Archer officials announced that coalition president Arlene F. Hogan will become head of Archer in July. Hogan, who has run San Francisco's Hamlin School for the last 13 years, is considered "a visionary leader" in girls education, says Archer parent and co-founder Vicky Shorr.

"The parents and teachers and girls who come here know they're taking a risk on something so new. It's still daring to come to this school. But it turns out such risk-taking can be very good for all of us," Shorr says.

For Patti Meyers, the school's new art teacher, the benefits were immediate. "It's exciting to be in a place where nobody can say, 'But we didn't do it this way last year.' Here, we find our own best ways. We build our own traditions."

Although Archer's curriculum is grounded in the classics--everyone studies Latin, everyone plays chamber music--the school itself is a celebration of single-sex education, of girls, and of the feminist struggle.

Banners for the beleaguered Equal Rights Amendment are proudly displayed in rooms crowded with girls born long after their mothers lost the fight for ratification. Girls First! is Archer's slogan, and its school colors are "ERA green" and "suffragette purple." Archer takes its name from Artemis the Archer, the patron goddess and protector of young women.

As one of very few new girls schools to open in the United States in the last six years, Archer already is attracting hundreds of applications for places in its sixth, seventh and eighth grades and expects interest to grow as the school adds the higher grades one by one.

Although Archer isn't the only girls school in America or the newest--a Harlem school for girls opened in September--its publications boast that it's "the first school founded on the stunning conclusion of the research of the last decade." That conclusion being that girls thrive in girls schools.

If that sounds like treason in this post-feminist age, it is nevertheless grounded in a series of increasingly emphatic academic reports. Starting in 1982 with Harvard sociologist Carol Gilligan's landmark look at the intellectual and emotional development of adolescent girls, "In a Different Voice," to a report from the American Assn. of University Women 10 years later, the message is clear: Girls suffer when they study with boys.

Archer students are well acquainted with many of the reasons girls fare better in girls schools and offer their own histories as cases in point.

For 13-year-old Kate Kang, who joined Archer's new eighth grade this fall, the proof is in math class. Although she was doing poorly in math at her old school, she is, in her own words, "like doing really great in math now. I love it! Like, can you believe it?"

Kang says the size of her public school math class made it difficult for her to get the help she needed to do well last year. "I wasn't really in any rush to raise my hand when [boys] had all the answers to the problems anyway," Kate says. "To tell you the truth, without guys, I think girls can make better grades in all their subjects."

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