When Danya Assaf was in Grade 3 at a public school and living around the corner from Havergal College in Toronto, she dreamed of becoming a student there. After begging her parents to take her, they toured the school and she started Grade 4 at Havergal the next fall.
Now a school prefect in Grade 12, Ms. Assaf says she knew, even at a young age, that Havergal was the only place she wanted to be. Impressed by the school's excellent facilities and the opportunities she would have in academics, art and athletics, the all-girls factor wasn't important to her initially.
"When I first came to Havergal, I didn't necessarily see it as a same-sex school," says Ms. Assaf. "What I noticed was the smaller class size and more individual learning style. I really liked the relationships I was able to build, not only with the other girls in my class, but also with my teacher. It just felt like a better fit for me. But having all girls created less distraction and a better atmosphere for learning. There was definitely a difference in the maturity level between the girls in my class and the boys from my old school."
Maggie Houston-White, Havergal's executive director of enrolment management, says Havergal would be a very different school with boys in the classroom. Havergal's entire education system is based on how girls learn best, from the way the classrooms are set up to their fitness facility, designed for the female body.
"Our teachers and coaches understand how to motivate girls, which is different than how you motivate boys," says Ms. Houston-White, who has worked at both girls' and boys' same-sex schools. "Girls do well with conversation, they like to make eye contact. Boys sometimes don't have the same level of ability to sit and concentrate the way girls do. These girls are starting their academic career in a place created to bring out the best in them."
While she acknowledges there are some great co-ed schools, she firmly believes in the value of single-sex education, if it's the right choice for the child.
As she points out, there's no thought that math and science are just for boys; in an all-girls' school, it's for everybody. Another strength is the role modelling that happens in a single-sex school.
"The captain of the robotics team is a girl," says Ms. Houston-White. "So is the captain of the volleyball team and the student who scored highest on the math Olympiad. The younger girls are all watching and thinking, I can do what that girl is doing."
Ms. Houston-White says another plus is that the girls talk about how comfortable they feel at Havergal just to be themselves.
"They're surrounded by other girls who understand where they're at in their stage of development and what they're going through," she explains. "Whether it's cheering on their friends in field hockey or a school play, the girls are really here for each other. There's a sense of belonging."
Sam Johnston, director of learning at St. George's School, a boys' school in Vancouver, has also worked at an all-girls' school. He feels it is important that learning strategies take the differences into account.
While he emphasizes that not all boys learn in the same way, they are often physical learners, so classes are structured to incorporate movement.
Other areas the school focuses on from a boy's perspective are early literacy, and literacy in general, because "boys tend to struggle with reading and writing more than girls do," and executive functioning to help develop organizational skills. Another key to teaching boys is looking to find relevance in the work that they do.
"That's good for girls, as well, but we find that unless boys think it's worthwhile, they aren't that interested in doing the work," Mr. Johnston says. "They place great value in understanding the relevance in what they're doing, so we've really tried to tie our curriculum to big ideas that relate to the real world. For example, at the Grade 6 level, we focus on the idea of being a global citizen and being global minded."
He also believes that boys and girls in single-gender schools are able to be more themselves. By that, he means they may feel freer to take on roles that they might not try if they were in a co-ed classroom.
"It's about a freedom to be whoever you are regardless of whatever the gender stereotype might be for a particular activity," says Mr. Johnston. "One of our most popular electives is ceramics. … The boys produce some very delicate and beautiful pots and sculptures out of our ceramics studio. I don't think we would have nearly the same turnout of boys if it was in a co-ed school."
Ottawa's Ashbury College was originally all boys before the senior school became co-ed in 1982. Brian Storosko, Ashbury's deputy head of teaching and learning, was a young teacher in the junior school during that transition, and years later, head of the junior school when it went co-ed, as well. As with any change, he says there was some pushback.
"We were a mostly male-dominated staff at that time, so it did take some getting used to," he recalls. "We had 11 girls starting with over 150 boys. There was a lot of trepidation and nervousness about how we were going to do this, so we interviewed the students and parents. The girls who came in said, 'Don't change a thing; just let us come in.' After two weeks, one of the girls said it was as if they were always there. That's the way it should be. We live in a co-ed world, so why separate them?"
Currently, the ratio at Ashbury is 47 per cent girls and 53 per cent boys, with a teaching-staff split of about 50/50 male and female.
"It's a lot easier on families to have all your children together in one school," says Mr. Storosko. "Over all, it's a good change. We want to raise all children with a strong voice to be advocates for themselves, for their families and society. The co-ed environment is preparing them to do that. Our male and female graduates are equally prepared to take on the world."
Ashbury's head of school, Norman Southward, says that programs should be what drives the decisions families make about school choice, more than co-ed versus same sex.
"I don't really see a versus," says Mr. Southward. "We have this range of schools to consider for our children and it's got to be the right fit for them. We don't typically come across families who say, 'I have to have co-ed education for my son or daughter or I have to have single-sex education'. The questions are: What's the program? What's the dynamic of the school? Sometimes there's a geographic question as well. School decisions are often made on what's actually practical, in terms of where families live."
And how does the gender-fluid or transgender student fit into this debate?
"That's certainly a question for the future," Mr. Southward says. "We have an inclusive approach in all of our operations and admissions process. I think we would proceed on that basis as we do with any student."