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Canadian College Italy is a co-ed Canadian-curriculum school in Lanciano, about three hours east of Rome

Canadian College Italy

When parents opt for a foreign study experience for their child, one question they may have when sending a student far away is: single-sex, or co-ed?

Several Canadian schools offer programs abroad, with the benefits of a Canadian curriculum coupled with an enriching cultural experience.

Marisa DiCarlo D'Alessandro was a young teacher in Toronto when she moved to Europe for a while and got an idea: Why not open a Canadian school there?

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"My husband and I wanted to give our children a European experience for a few years. It was the tremendous change that I saw in their development that inspired me," she says.

That's how Canadian College Italy (CCI), in Lanciano, about three hours east of Rome, was born. Today, CCI is in its 20th year, with about 65 male and female students from not only Canada but also the United States, Mexico, Asia and South America.

As for which is best: co-ed or same-sex education, Ms. D'Alesandro went to the source.

"I spoke to a group of students this morning and asked them this," she says.

"Many had been in same-gender schools and all of them told me that in co-ed classes they do act differently, but in a good way. They enjoy listening to the views of the opposite gender and they really enjoy making friends with them."

On the other hand, says Karen Jurjevich, principal of Branksome Hall school in Toronto, studying in a single gender class can inspire "confidence and connectedness." Branksome has run an all-girls' program since 2012 on Jeju Island, South Korea, now with about 500 students.

Girls in same-sex settings "are willing to take risks and ask questions that perhaps they night not ask in a co-ed setting," Ms. Jurjevich says.

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They learn differently than boys, she says. "Girls love to collaborate, hear the challenge and then they want to talk it through and work together."

Lise Eliot concedes that gender patterns can be different, but she believes there are advantages to putting the boys and girls in the same room. Dr. Eliot is associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain.

"I think single-sex education is a Band-Aid, and I don't think it's a good Band-Aid," she says. Same-sex schooling is supposed to address the problem of students worrying about their gender roles and image, but the problem is really more about making sure they're confident no matter who is in the class, she explains.

"There's lots of data to show that boys do better in co-educational classes," Dr. Eliot says. "Girls are doing very well in school; they outperform boys. So it's no longer the case that girls are dumbing themselves down to appear attractive."

As for the boys, says Ms. D'Alesandro, "even though there may be some evidence showing that sections of boys' brains develop a bit later than girls up to the age of 14, there is still not enough conclusive evidence that single-sex schools make girls or boys excel."

Nevertheless, Ms. Jurjevich says the students' experience in the two-year-old single-gender South Korean program has so far been overwhelmingly positive.

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Branksome is partnering with the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Business on an exchange program for up to 30 Grade 9 girls, who will study STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) units in both Korea and Toronto.

Spending a year or more in another country can be a "transformative experience" that can lead to "real-world skills," Ms. D'Alesandro says.

"They [students] gain a different perspective and it can be one of the best ways for young people to understand today's social, political and economic issues."

One CCI student, A.J. Gustern, said in the school's yearbook that he came to Italy from a suburb in Colorado because "I needed to see that the world is a bigger place."

Ms. Jurjevich agrees that exposure to other cultures is an important reason for studying abroad. "There's the aspect of living in another country that forces you to grow up.

"You really get a sense of what another part of the world will be like," she says.

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Whether they choose same-sex or co-ed, students and their parents choose international programs for different reasons, she adds.

Many of Branksome's Jeju Island students are Korean or Korean-Canadian kids who want to stick with the Canadian curriculum while being immersed in Korean culture.

In other cases, studying overseas is a family tradition, Ms. Jurjevich adds.

"What we see often are families where the parents themselves have been educated in another country, who are open to their daughters having that kind of experience."

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