Resplendent in their dress pants, white shirts and ties, a dozen lads engage in a boisterous game of pickup football between classes at Toronto's Crescent School, which prides itself on allowing boys to be "boyish" as they work, play and learn.
Earlier in the week, on the first day of school, a more nurturing scene played out, as the Grade 12 students taught the new boys in Grade 3 how to knot their school ties. "It was magic," headmaster Geoff Roberts says.
"It's very hard to be a cynical teenager around a little kid," adds Colin Lowndes, deputy headmaster. Indeed, Crescent School officials say, their all-boy environment actually frees students from the stereotypical roles (tough guy, rebel, class clown) that some might revert to in a co-ed setting.
Every year Mr. Lowndes asks senior-grade boys who have transferred from other schools what surprises them most about Crescent. Invariably, he gets the same answer: "Here, it's cool to be smart."
On the West Coast, parents and educators at St. Margaret's School in Victoria make similar observations about what they call the all-girl advantage.
"Generally, the girls who come to our school end up being far more willing to be daring, to try new things and participate more fully in the classroom," says Kathy Charleson, director of admissions at the school, which teaches students from pre-school to Grade 12.
There are fewer social inhibitions that stand in the way of learning, Ms. Charleson says. "The very culture in a girls' school values achievement beyond, say, the style of jeans the girl is wearing, or how she looks." The girls at St. Margaret's wear uniforms.
In Toronto, parent Prabhat Jha and his daughter Shreya, now in Grade 9, opted for University of Toronto Schools – more for its commitment to academic excellence, diversity and equity than the fact that UTS is co-educational. (Shreya, whom he affectionately describes as "an egghead," had also been accepted by two private all-girls' schools).
In weighing the options, Dr. Jha says he came across some compelling U.S. research that concluded peer influences in schools are "the most important predictor" of how girls will perform. "And that's the part of UTS that we liked, the peer influences of the school saying that it's okay to be interested in academics and to want to do well . . . and Shreya was absolutely convinced after a couple of interviews at the school that, yeah, that's where she wanted to be."
As is the case at Crescent School and St. Margaret's, there is a buddy system at UTS, with the older students guiding the younger ones. At the opening day assembly, the entire faculty and student body gave a standing ovation to the new Grade 7 students – 55 boys and 55 girls – as they filed into the auditorium, says UTS principal Rosemary Evans.
Crescent School parent Mary Wellner's only advice to other parents is to go into the school-choice decision with an open mind. "You should look at all the schools and know your child as best you can. Everybody is different."
Her son Nicholas, quiet and studious, was in a co-educational international school when the family was overseas. He was doing well academically, but not particularly engaged, she relates. "I was watching this boy who had tons to offer, but wasn't interested. It was very frustrating as a parent."
On their return to Canada, Nicholas enrolled in Crescent School in Grade 4 (he is now in Grade 9).
"I knew if he came here, there would be so much on offer. The boys, especially when they come into the lower school, are encouraged to join everything – and he did. He was in the play, he was on the team every single time, he joined the choir, he did well academically. He was just on fire, and that's what I was looking for. I knew he would be that way if he was in the right environment."
Psychologist Michael Leatch, director of student services, says girls typically dominate the honour rolls and student councils in co-educational schools. "At a boys' school, they have to step up, they have to assume roles they may not have been comfortable assuming in another environment. A lot of the research looks at peer pressure in a co-ed environment, boys thinking what looks cool, what doesn't look cool, a lot of posturing for girls, and vice versa."
At UTS, co-captains Joshua Feldman and Emma Clarke, both Grade 12 students, do not see gender as much of an issue. Ms. Clarke says she chose UTS primarily for the intellectual and cultural environment. Mr. Feldman says he had looked at the all-boys' option and it seemed strange not to have girls in the classroom.
"I have always worked well with girls. Boys and girls do have differences, it's just that the differences don't get in the way of whatever we are doing."
Ms. Evans says admission is based on academic merit, with an equal number of boys and girls joining the school in Grade 7 each year. The equity focus extends to cultural and socio-economic diversity, as well. (One-fifth of the students receive bursaries to help finance their tuition.)
And at UTS at least, the girls do not leave the boys in the dust. In course choices, "there is generally equal distribution" – girls are not shying away from the maths and sciences and boys are not shying away from the arts and social sciences, Ms. Evans says.
"In terms of performance, there can be a slight advantage to the girls in middle school, and that is primarily because of the impact of their organizational skills, but in the senior school, the results tend to be quite equitable."
Crescent School in Toronto recognizes that it is often difficult for little boys to sit still in school, so it has specially-designed "wiggle tables" with swinging foot boards, headmaster Geoff Roberts says.
"At Crescent, we know what boys are capable of – on both sides of the ledger. Boys are exuberant, impulsive, unfiltered and physical. We also know that boys have enormous imaginative resources that, when marshalled, can result in magnificent results. But boys need clear challenges, need space and time to explore, and appropriate, fair parameters within which to work."
Girls tend to be less self-conscious in single-gender schools, says Kathy Charleson, director of admissions for St. Margaret's School in Victoria. "They can be authentic, they can be themselves, they really do come to the school to learn, to explore, to grow."
The all-girls environment "helps them navigate the teenage years without the added pressure of boy-girl tensions."
St. Margaret's parent Laurie Darrah, whose daughter Audrey is only in Grade 3, believes the school environment protects the girls, to some extent, from societal pressures to grow up too quickly. They retain their sense of wonder and curiosity, she says. "And it allows them to be very daring and try new things and be engaged without those social risks of a co-ed environment."
BOYS AND GIRLS
"We are committed to equity in all dimensions – socio-economic, cultural, gender," says Rosemary Evans, principal of University of Toronto Schools.
Educationally, the focus is on providing an engaging learning environment, and giving all students "opportunities to follow their curiosity," she says.
The students at UTS, located in downtown Toronto, are greatly enriched by the opportunity to go to school with classmates whose families come from all over the world and all walks of life, parent Prabhat Jha says. "It's egalitarian, but doesn't sacrifice on excellence."