Photography by Elizabeth Jochum
Remarks made in an all-girls fifth-grade classroom at Woerner Elementary School, where grades K through 5 are divided by sex:
“Boys are gross.” (Actually, that was a ponytailed first-grader in the hall.)
“Boys bug us, ’cause they ask us questions and be silly.”
“Boys are too loud. They crazy.”
And in an all-boys classroom, same grade:
“Girls talk too much, and it’s annoying.”
“It feels weird being around just guys. Sometimes it gets disgusting. Boys wear smelly deodorant.”
“Yeah, and we fart.”
“But there’s less screaming.”
“The girls do too much drama.”
“Can you tell who’s in this classroom?” asks Woerner’s principal, Peggy Meyer, stepping into an empty room. Paper soccer balls and footballs hang from the ceiling. The seating consists of stools that twirl and roll. “We even tried those balls you sit on,” Meyer says, “but it was hard to keep the boys from bouncing all over the room. They crave action.”
The girls generally prefer a quieter atmosphere and work best in pairs or small groups. “Boys’ and girls’ brains are different,” says Meyer—a statement few dared utter 20 years ago. She’s not enforcing these differences—she’s delighted that the boys are knitting caps for the homeless, and she has no intention of using single-gender classrooms to “make girls girlier.” She just wants them to find their own voice. “I used to go into classrooms and notice that the boys were taking over, taking up the teacher’s time,” she says, “and the girls were just sitting there.”
Meyer graduated from a single-gender high school where that couldn’t have happened. As a principal, she’s kept up with a growing body of research on the merits of single-gender education. So when the superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools asked for innovation, she fired off a proposal: Divide and conquer. Give Woerner’s boys more stimulating, hands-on, interactive classes, and give the girls more confidence, especially in math and science.
One family balked: How would their son know how to deal with girls when he got older? One teacher quit. Everybody else went along for the ride. After decades with mixed classrooms, Freddie Johnson is teaching only boys, and she’s really getting the hang of how they learn and communicate. “I used to be like, ‘Don’t you hear me?’ And once I had a class of all boys, I realized, they don’t always hear you.” Now she’s firmer—“I growl right back at them”—and more careful to be interested in what they’re interested in: “I even tried to kick a football with them.”
At the end of the experiment’s first year, Woerner’s kids showed no academic gains. Teachers shot each other nervous looks. “Don’t worry,” Meyer told them. “Wait until our kindergarteners get into fifth grade.”
Woerner’s now finishing year 4 after its great divide. MAP scores have gone up so significantly that the school has been moved from provisional to full accreditation. The parents who fretted about their son are ecstatic—he has an autism spectrum disorder, and simplifying the classroom to one gender has made it easier for him to concentrate and socialize. The kindergarteners who started out in single-gender classes are now in third grade, and the boys and girls play kickball together at recess. Far fewer boys get sent to the principal’s office for discipline. And the boys say that the girls have become “bossy.” Meyer lifts an eyebrow. “So do you think that if you go back to a mixed classroom, the girls are going to take over?”
“Yes!” several boys shout in unison.
She hides a smile.
ENTERING A NEW CENTURY
Photography by Elizabeth Jochum
Thomas Jefferson School opened in 1946 to prep Midwestern boys for the Ivy League. Over time, TJ morphed into a coed day and boarding school with a small, international student body (about 80 kids in grades 7–12). But it stayed sweetly anachronistic and quirkily brilliant, with lots of leather-bound books and very little technology. Governed entirely by its faculty, TJ had a Mr. Chips–ish head of school, an “old boy” who’d graduated from the place and spent little time elsewhere.
Four years ago, Elizabeth Holekamp took his place.
Holekamp is only the fourth head of school in TJ’s long history, and she’s the first outsider. “The place has been operating on its own island for 65 years,” she says. “I see myself as the bridge between the past and the future.”
The board is solidly behind her. “I have immense respect for what she’s doing,” says trustee LaDonna Hopkins. Holekamp’s detractors say that she’s added so many administrators and support staff, they now outnumber the instructors. “There seems to be a new dynamic of putting more layers of administration and bureaucracy in place instead of more communication with teachers,” says Andy Tolch, an adjunct art instructor who quit last summer. Seven other full- or part-time faculty or staff also left last year, for assorted reasons. For example, Greg Edmondson's position and title as artist-in-residence were eliminated, and he chose not to respond to an offer to return as an adjunct instructor for less than one-sixth his prior salary. Of the 19 current full- or part-time faculty members on the school’s website, 13 are new since Holekamp’s arrival.
She describes her new faculty as dynamic, with “a lot of fresh energy.” As for the new support staff, “They didn’t have a school nurse!” she exclaims. “And the school didn’t have a business manager until I got here!” She wants faculty focusing on academic leadership, not wasting their talents doubling up as part-time administrators, so she’s hired a full-time admissions director, a full-time business officer, and a full-time development assistant.
Holekamp’s own role is distinctly different than her predecessor’s: “Bill was in that older model, first among equals. It was truly shared governance. But the board rewrote the job description.”
The board also voted, by a ratio of three to one, to become fully independent, with teachers no longer serving as trustees. The Independent Schools Association of the Central States was releasing new standards, stipulating that no paid employee should have a vote on the board.
Some TJ old-timers are convinced ISACS would have made an exception, because TJ was founded with the promise of shared governance. Its board had already shifted to 50 percent faculty, but Holekamp knew she’d have to tread carefully, because their presence on the board was tradition.
“It sorted itself out,” she says with relief. “The board itself decided it was time to move to an independent board. Now the board has one employee, the head of school, and everybody else works for me.”
She sees her job as “shepherding the school to a new kind of governance. Getting the appropriate systems and safeguards in place to support the mission of the school. Helping people understand the concept of risk management.”
But some found the new feel corporate. “At the beginning of her second year, she gave us all blue polo shirts with the school logo and wanted us to wear them on Opening Day," says Edmondson. "We looked like the sales force at Best Buy!”
This description might be considered apt, because another of Holekamp’s challenges is bringing technology into all the classrooms. “The school had avoided that,” she says. “We brought in online databases to build research skills. We started a robotics team. Information literacy is vital.”
Another complaint about Holekamp is that she cut down too many trees. She freely admits to “hacking away at the honeysuckle” that concealed TJ from Lindbergh Boulevard. In the elbow-patched era, nobody minded the obscurity.
“We are going to be more known,” she vows. “We are going to stop being the secret school.”
Read more about Thomas Jefferson School's history and curriculum here.
RELIGION DOESN'T PAY?
Photography by Elizabeth Jochum
De La Salle Middle School opened 14 years ago to give kids from low-income families an education rooted in Catholic values—and a shot at a college-prep high school. It was modeled after a Jesuit program, housed in a building owned by the archdiocese, and sponsored by the Christian Brothers order.
Parents (most of them Christian but not Catholic) loved how their children were shaped by daily prayer and Mass. And the students made huge academic strides. About 87 percent entered performing below grade level, and 98 percent went on to graduate from high school. In 2014, De La Salle students outperformed the national average.
But the school was spending about $1 million a year to educate 70 kids.
Four years ago, its president, Corey Quinn, heard about two Christian Brothers in Chicago who started a charter school and now had an enrollment of 1,000. They paid a visit—and the clincher came when the school’s CEO walked to a whiteboard and said gravely, “Here’s the rub.” The state money they received per student only went so far, and they still had a funding gap to close.
In his head, Quinn multiplied De La Salle’s cost per student by 1,000 and went pale. Then, the CEO wrote the amount on the whiteboard: $500,000.
“I honest to God laughed out loud,” Quinn recalls. De La Salle spent twice that much to educate a student body one-fourteenth as big. And thousands of kids in the St. Louis area didn’t have access to a school that met the state’s minimum requirements.
Quinn started planning. “A lot of for-profit charter companies gave charters a black eye and left town,” he says. “We’re in the second wave now: little local charter schools, higher performers who are in it for the right reasons.”
This August, De La Salle will become one of them. De La Salle has altered its relationship with the Christian Brothers and assured the archdiocese that it will move to its own, larger building in 2016. And the religious pictures will have to come down. Classes won’t start with prayers anymore, and instead of religion classes and monthly Mass, there’ll be an optional faith-formation program before and after school. Quinn plans to bring “someone very objective into our building for two or three days, to log everything they see and pretend to be a God cop.” But he says “the vision, the mission, and the values are sacred.”
Can he even use that word? “With a small ‘s,’” he says, eyes twinkling. He actually likes some of the changes they’re planning. Instead of asking God to “bless all people who struggle,” students might pledge, “We are called to support all people who struggle”—which makes them accountable.
Students aren’t as thrilled. “I kind of like praying in class,” says eighth-grader Deasia Quarrells. “We can say things, what we need to pray for, and at the end of the day we pray for the homeless people and the firefighters.”
When her class protested the Michael Brown decision, they staged a walkout—to the church next door. The old way’s had a powerful influence.
It just doesn’t reach enough kids.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the reason that Greg Edmondson is no longer on the faculty at Thomas Jefferson School.