Now, Diop has been chosen to lead the first-of-its-kind all male public school, Young Men’s Leadership Academy (YMLA) in the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD). The application period begins on Friday, Jan. 16, for the 2015-16 school year. It’s open to any male in Bexar County entering 4th, 5th, or 6th grade. The school will add 7th and 8th grade as their inaugural 6th graders progress.
The school will occupy the building vacated by W.W. White Elementary School at the end of this school year.
YMLA will be an in-district charter, and hopes to see similar success to other high performing charters within SAISD.
Diop has no doubt that it will. He is confident that with the right team of teachers, single-gender education is a winning strategy.
“It started when I was a classroom teacher,” said Diop, who has taught across grade levels, and worked at all tiers of administration within SAISD.
As a middle school teacher, Diop would separate his classes into boys and girls, seated in opposite “hemispheres” in the room. The two hemispheres developed distinct cultures, and both were far more productive than Diop’s undivided classrooms.
When he became vice principal, Diop separated the lunchroom. As principal he created an all-girls classroom that had remarkable academic results.
This speaks to two things. First, contrary to the prevailing belief about educational bureaucracy, SAISD teachers and administrators do actually have freedom to innovate. At least Diop found that to be true once he had tried his plan and succeeded.
“In our school district, (if you want to try something new,) you’re going to be held accountable, but you can do it,” Diop said.
Secondly, it speaks to the efficacy of single-gender learning environments. Diop’s experience with this approach led him to a dissertation on the topic. At the root, Diop says, is what we all know, which is that boys and girls are different.
To demonstrate, he used the playground. He would release the 5th grade girls on their own to run out to the playground after lunch. Then, he would escort the 5th grade boys outside, and turn them loose once they were within view of the playground. In his experience, turning a group of 10-year-old boys loose in the hall with ample “adventures” en route to their destination was not wise, whereas girls rarely strayed into mischief or disruption.
Sure enough, the boys immediately organized some sort of game, usually a team sport. The girls meanwhile, spent most of recess socializing.
He maintains that those differences carry over into the classroom as well.
Diop readily acknowledges that not every boy or girl falls into these generalizations. There are a lot of competitive girls and collaborative boys out there. However, for the majority, these norms, whether innate or socialized, hold true. At least enough to fill a school. Or several schools.
When it comes to learning styles, traditional classrooms are often more female-friendly.
The majority of SAISD teachers are female, Diop explained, and its natural that they would teach to the accessible strengths of female students while rowdy, fidgety, loud boys are often labeled troublemakers, simply for being boys.
There will still be female teachers at YMLA, but they will be trained to create a male-oriented learning environment with kinetic, competitive elements in almost every lesson.
The school will start in 4th grade, when Diop’s research shows that the romantic/sexual awareness of the opposite sex kicks in. He calls it “4th grade syndrome” and it causes all sorts of distractions, bad behavior, and disruption.
Anecdotally, I agree. One day in elementary school I came home looking particularly annoyed and weary. My mom asked me what was wrong, and I simply said, “Fourth-grade boys.”
It became a family euphemism for all men behaving badly.
“I always thought it was foolish of us to think those attractions turn off when they walk into a classroom,” Diop said.
When girls are removed from the environment, the boys are more able to focus. At YWLA I observed the same for the girls. They were able to let the empowering messages sink in without wondering if they would come off as bossy, bitchy, or unfeminine. They spent all day with academic goals, not romantic ones.
A tween can listen more clearly to the sound advice of their teachers and role models, without the competing desire to conform to the desires of the opposite-sex classmates. This is not going to help homosexual or transgender students who struggle with attraction distractions, but for the heterosexual majority, removing the object of their affection proves remarkably effective.
Diop recalls his time in the military, and how trainees were sex-separated for training to keep fraternization at a minimum while the values and ethos of the institution was instilled.
The instillation of values is the true power behind single-gender environments. Diop took copious notes from the San Antonio Academy, a private all-boys school in Monte Vista. Critics call it elitist, but Diop believes that what they are doing within the walls of the school is right on track.
“There’s no reason this can’t be created in an inner city context,” said Diop.
That’s exactly what he’s going to try to do, taking the best practices from private boys’ schools and inner city education and melding them into what promises to be a transformational opportunity for young men in Bexar county, and a flagship campus for what Diop hopes becomes a nationwide trend.
*Featured/top image: Young Men’s Leadership Academy advertisement along the Martin Luther King, Jr. march route in the Eastside. Courtesy photo.