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Review of Learning Like A Girl: Educating Our Daughters In Schools Of Their Own

By Merri Rosenberg

Learning Like A Girl: Educating Our
Daughters In Schools Of Their Own

by Diana Meehan
Public Affairs, New York, 2007: 324pp.

I’ve read many worthwhile and significant books during the past few years as a reviewer for these pages.

Until now I haven’t come across a book that I wish some Hollywood producer would option for a movie, or even a television movie-of-the-week.

But Diana Meehan’s thoroughly engaging, engrossing, accessible and brilliantly written story about her efforts, with similarly committed colleagues and advocates, to found a girls’ school in Los Angeles is one I’d love to see on screen.

 The story is compelling, complete with the drama of reluctant neighbors protesting the arrival of a girls’ school in their community (and not only a girls’ school, but a school that embraces Caucasian, African-American, Latina and Asian students) as well as Meehan’s personal drama centering on a health crisis (fortunately resolved with a good outcome). Plus there are quirky anecdotes about the challenges of launching a school from scratch, including raising funds, selecting board members and teaching staff, and finding classroom space to making sure there’s something as mundane—and necessary—as toilet paper in the bathrooms for the first day of school.

She’s so good at what she does, and how she tells her tale, that you come away believing that given enough passion, determination and sheer strength of will, anyone could accomplish what the founders of the Archer School in Los Angeles did only a decade ago.

Meehan is too modest by half. Obviously she and the other founders brought something special to the table that made it possible for the Archer School to become a reality and to flourish. Not everyone, after all, can get Academy Award winning song writers like Alan and Marilyn Bergman to write the school song, for example.

But this is not about glitz or privilege. The Archer School is very much about giving girls from a diversity of backgrounds the chance to become “the best they can be. Given a chance, they create worlds better than our dream for them.” (p. 205), through rigorous academics and a deep understanding of girls’ need to learn through networks and connections rather than competition.

It is a school that has learned from the examples of other distinguished single-sex girls’ schools around the country, such as the Emma Willard school in Troy, NY; the Atlanta Girls’ School, The Young Women’s Leadership School in Manhattan, Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago, IL, and the Irma Rangel School in Dallas, TX, among others.

As an academic who specializes in media and its messages, Meehan is especially smart at explaining precisely why a girls’ school is needed to counteract the predominant consumer culture that values brand names, shopping and popularity rather than academic achievement and intellectual pursuits. Founding a girls’ school is, quite simply, a provocative counter-cultural move, especially in an era when educators were beginning to worry about how boys were being left behind. Meehan and her colleagues understood that there needs to be a place where “there must be acceptance and support for taking a challenge.” (p.190)

She’s also good at explaining the research into how girls learn, and what those differences may be, whether she’s citing Carol Gilligan, Mary Pipher, :Peggy Orenstein or Myra and David Sadker, among others. The take away message is simple: “Girls’ schools are good for girls.” (p. xvi).

And the results are impressive. The first graduating class earned acceptances to some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, such as Harvard, Vassar, Princeton, Stanford, and the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Even more important, perhaps, Meehan writes poignantly and eloquently about the metamorphoses many of the students undergo, thriving in the school’s unique atmosphere to emerge as academically strong students and impassioned leaders. These portraits are vividly brought to life through Meehan’s deft descriptions—one wants to meet each and everyone of these students to find out more about them.

And the school community, as led by school head, Arlene Morgan, absorbs and integrates the unswerving missions of the school. As Meehan writes, “ At Archer, students adopt honesty, respect, and responsibility as official shared values, and they talk about applying those values to interactions with teachers and among themselves in the classroom, in peer counseling, on the sports court, on the bus. There are unstated values, too, shared by this communal body, which include a commitment to hard work and high expectations to become what a girl named Sofi identified as “tomorrow’s dreamers and tomorrow’s leaders.”(p. 172)

As the product of a historically single–sex high school (Brooklyn’s Berkeley Institute, now known as the Berkeley Carroll School) that went co-ed my sophomore year, as well as Barnard College, I am biased in favor of education that supports girls’ specific development.

Read this. I defy you to read it without getting a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye. It will make you believe in the power of education, as demonstrated by gifted, caring teachers who Meehan notes are truly “present” for their students, and the transformations that can result when students and teachers are truly allowed to do their best.#



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