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State system offers girls a 'comfort'zone

Girls-only education is making a modest comeback in Canadian state schools.

When the 84 girls in the Nellie McClung junior high-school programme in Edmonton, Alberta, began their school year earlier this month, they did so without any members of the opposite sex in class.

The programme, named after a pioneer of the Canadian suffragette movement, is the product of concerted lobbying by a group of parents and a provincial government that is encouraging alternatives to the standard public-school system.

Alberta is the first of the 10 provinces to allow charter schools on the American model, where groups of parents can set up a state-funded school independent of public school boards.

The Nellie McClung programme was born of just such an initiative. John Masson, an Edmonton chartered accountant and father of an 11-year-old girl, said that he and other concerned parents conceived of the all-girls programme as a way of ensuring that their daughters would continue to succeed educationally.

Mr Mason said once girls reach adolescence, they tend to lose their self-confidence at school, especially in subjects like mathematics and science. The parents believed that if the distractions of a co-educational school could be reduced through a girls-only programme, some of these problems could be eliminated.

The parents also wanted to incorporate women's studies in the programme, Mr Masson said. "We thought that (with) separation, there was evidence they would do much better, particularly in the core subjects."

The parents began the process of setting up a charter school but were then approached by the Edmonton School Board, which suggested that the programme be set up within an existing school. Because the board offered its resources and a school building, the parents decided to abandon the charter school idea and instead organised an alternative programme within the existing system, even though it would result it less control.

Carolyn Lewis, curriculum co-ordinator and humanities teacher at Nellie McClung, says that the school is designed to give the girls, who are between the ages of 11 and 14, "a comfort zone" to develop their self-confidence and academic skills.

She said that studies have shown that girls begin to lose their confidence in school at the age of 10 and begin to cede to social pressures that are placed on young women. "To be brilliant, intelligent and strong is not encouraged often in society (for girls)," she said.

The school has developed a curriculum that squeezes the week's core academic teaching into four days of classes with the fifth day turned over to life learning where there is a special theme programme. In the first month of courses, each Friday has been devoted self-awareness, self-esteem, fitness and health.

The teaching staff, which is all-female "by fluke" is organised so that the same teacher teaches mathematics and science while a second teacher teaches social sciences and language arts.

French is also obligatory and there are three complementary courses that are taught in rotation - drama, art and outdoor environmental education.

The Alberta Teachers' Association has been outspoken in its opposition to charter schools, calling them elitist and favouring upper middle-class children over the poor and immigrants.

"They're private schools being funded totally by public dollars," said Bauni Mackay, president of the 30,000-member Alberta Teachers' Federation, the union which represents in all Alberta public schools.

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