Seventh graders are gathered in the cafeteria of the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy. They’re all dressed in white button down shirts and khaki pants. In their hands, they hold silver ties—which they are learning how to tie by themselves.
"Put it through the front hole and pull it down," instructs counselor, Sabrina Brown. "Okay. And start fixing it. Oh, there you go! Pull it, pull it!”
“This is so weird," says seventh grader Martin Gonzales. "I look like I’m going to work!”
Gonzales moved to Austin this summer and says he enrolled at Gus Garcia because his brother wanted to attend.
“But now that I’m here, it’s pretty cool," he says, despite the fact that it's all boys. "It’s pretty weird. I’m not used to it. Regularly my teachers call me a ladies man.”
Well, that won't matter as much at this school.
After years of debate, the Austin School District merged two chronically underperforming schools on Austin’s East side—Garcia and Pearce — and created two single sex schools: The Gus Garcia Youth Men’s Leadership Academy and the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy.
The district is hoping the new model breathes some fresh air into these low performing campuses.
Sterlin McGruder, principal of the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy comes to Austin from Grand Prairie, where he also ran an all-boys school.
The tie tutorial is just one of many things he hopes to teach his students this year, as well as the difference between a salad and dinner fork, social media etiquette, how to buy a car, how to change a tire, how to wash clothes and even how to sew a button.
McGruder says the most important goal is to create a more positive school experience for young boys. “I think sometimes our schools are not built for our young boys," McGruder says.
"Some of the things our young men are learning that’s inappropriate for schools. In kindergarten, the first assignment is a drawing assignment and they draw something action, guns ,with cars and the teachers say, 'That’s not school appropriate.'”
Nearly all the students enrolled at Gus Garcia are minorities from low-income families and McGruder says more than 60 percent are being raised by single moms.
“They don’t have a man there in their life, having a teacher that will be there for the whole year that they see that consistency. I think it’s important they have someone who can bridge that gap,” he says.
Single-sex schools are the latest effort by the Austin school district to reform under-performing schools in East Austin. Austin ISD Trustee Cheryl Bradley led the effort, which has been criticized by labor leaders and some researchers who questioned whether single-sex schools were the right fit.Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association published a study of 1.6 million students.
It found single-sex education did not provide a better education than co-ed schools. But Austin ISD employees all say the same thing: It's about choice.
“I believe that every parent should have a choice," says McGruder.
"With 86,000 students and with the diversity we have is that we offer different options for parents and for students," echoes Austin ISD Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz.
"Now parents can choose to send and students can decide they want to take part in this education," says Ivette Savina, the principal of the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy.
UT Psychology professor Rebecca Bigler studies single-sex education. She argues when single sex schools perform better, it’s not because there’s only boys or only girls in the classroom. It’s all about economics.
“The schools are high performing because of all the things rich parents afford a school," Bigler says. "We know that schools get funded not just taxpayer but from donations for new gym, the new school board and new trip to Hawaii. Rich parents foot those bills. [And] when students ask for that opportunity, what they don’t realize is you’re going to get all girls, but you’re not going to get the resource part. You won’t be at private little miss whatever school for girls because you’re going to have poor parent base. And why that’s so troubling to me is it leaves us unwilling or unable to confront economic fairness of American schooling.”
Still, Principal Savina at the all-girls school says she still believes her school will provide female students with a better experience.“And so maybe the evidence isn’t showing academic gains but the fact that a student can say this is the way I feel and for that reason I will try harder has to be worth something.”