Back in 1884, when young girls first attended Annie Wright School, Tacoma had a population just over 1,000 and was part of the Washington Territory. Charles Wright, a railroad tycoon, named the “school for young ladies” after his daughter.
Times have changed dramatically, and so has Tacoma, but Annie Wright Schools holds tightly to tradition — with a new twist. Later this year, it will open a high school for young men.
At a time when gender-neutral classrooms are a trend, and when some educators operate on the idea that gender is a spectrum, Annie Wright is going against the grain by hosting upper schools for both boys and girls. The two distinct high schools will abide on the historic North End campus, a stone’s throw from each other.
The announcement, made public Thursday, should be welcome news for Annie Wright’s eighth-grade boys. They will now be able to matriculate with their class instead of scattering to area high schools.
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Though boys and girls have been learning side by side at Annie Wright’s Lower School and Middle School since the 1970s, the campus’ educators and trustees adhere to the 133-year-old philosophy of a secondary education separated by gender. It’s certainly the centerpiece of a strategy and choice that’s survived more than a century and seems to have enduring appeal. Surveys taken from students who have received a single-gender education report increased confidence, motivation and participation.
The school’s original mission statement was elegant: “The school will provide education for the rising generation of daughters of the pioneers, children who will lay a firm foundation for the great state that is to be, a state which will require them to have kind, not callous hearts; joyous, not pampered spirits: broad, not petty minds.”
Today’s Annie Wright, while modernized in many respects, is still old-school in its belief that some girls learn differently than boys. This in no way indicates that the school reinforces stereotypes or biases. Its excellent academic reputation indicates just the opposite. All its graduates are college bound, many to the Ivy League.
Annie Wright leaders observe that there’s no clear scientific consensus about gender-based pedagogy. Research from the National Institutes of Health shows differences in cognitive development; for instance, the volume of a boy’s brain may be larger, and a girl’s gray matter may reach full size earlier. But neither of these traits is specifically related to learning.
When asked about curriculum differences at the new boys’ school, assistant head of schools Susan Bauska gave the example that ninth-grade boys will not read “Jane Eyre.” Instead, boys will be presented with “nonfiction, graphic novels and other literary novels that encourage boys to read more.”
Of course, adolescent boys and girls tend to be drawn to one another, and Annie Wright leaders are wise to provide a taste of the co-ed experience. Students from the brother-sister schools will interact in the dining hall, commingled arts classes and other settings.
The first boys’ class, anticipated to be around 10 pupils, will begin next fall. More students and grade levels will be added gradually through 2020.
The school clearly has a formula for success. Some may point to the single-gender philosophy, or the handpicked staff, small class sizes and focus on core academics in the International Baccalaureate program. It also could have something to do with high expectations, diverse extracurricular opportunities, parental support and sufficient resources to pay for superior facilities, including well-equipped classrooms and labs.
The good news is that both boys and girls will soon have a chance to receive all of the above, should family finances allow. (A day student pays $26,265 per year; the cost including full room and board rises to $55,620. Financial aid is available.)
In the midst of a national school-choice movement, Annie Wright’s gender-based approach gives families one more option.
Tacoma already has an arts-based public high school and a science-based public high school located at a zoo. It also boasts the largest cluster of publicly funded charter schools in the state, and private schools both parochial and secular.
This will only add to the city’s reputation as a laboratory of education innovation.