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Austin Single-Sex School Students Reunite for Etiquette Class

There are girls on campus at Gus Garcia Young Men's Leadership Academy, and some of boys are trying to take advantage of that situation.

“He’s asking that girl out, and if she says no I’m going to laugh in his face," says sixth grader J.D. Gomez between bites of cookies and lemonade. "Me too!" says another student.

The boys are conspiring during the snack break at their weekly cotillion class, which teaches dance, manners and social etiquette. The boys were supposed to be practicing small talk with the girls. And while there was a lot of talk about the girls in the room, there wasn’t a lot of actually talking to the girls. Sixth grader Justin Vasquez says that’s the worst part about going to an all-boys school.

“Everybody gets shy when they’re around girls," Vasquez says.

“Yeah, they gotta get used to them because we don’t have boys in our school," says Ryianna Thomas, a seventh grader from the all-girls school. "So it’s like 'Woah' when you first see them, like 'Oh my god boys!' But now we’re just dancin’, just introducing ourselves, it’s pretty cool."

Austin public schools are required to incorporate social and emotional learning into the school day in addition to regular academics. Through that curriculum, students are taught how to manage emotions and relationships in social settings.

At Gus Garcia Young Men's Leadership Academy and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy, the two new single-sex schools in Northeast Austin, boys and girls are learning most of those social and emotional lessons separately. But at this after-school cotillion class, the boys and girls can interact and learn together. 

In the etiquette classes, students have learned how to sit properly, formally introduce themselves, and how to do dances like the cha-cha and the fox trot.

For the students, these dances are new and unfamiliar.

"It's not normal dances," says Thomas. "We do the whip and the nae nae," referring to two more recent popular dances.

Sixth grader J'Lissa Weeks says she's learned a lot, too.

“Before I came to this class I didn’t even know how to hold a plate with a cup or how to do these dances," says Weeks.

The two schools were made into single-sex schools to try and improve students' academic performance. Teachers and staff say separating boys and girls helps them focus in class. But for students to learn social interaction, boys and girls have to reunite.

“Parents want for us to continue to have a grasp on, to continue to teach our students to be respectful to each other, and to problem solve and to learn to be team players," says Ivette Savina, principal of the all-girls school. She says the cotillion class is just one way to teach those lessons.

Social and emotional learning also helps tackle disciplinary issues. Both of these schools have struggled with discipline. Last year, when the schools were co-ed, more than a quarter of the students were suspended at least once. But students in this etiquette class were either nominated by teachers or volunteered — no one is forced to be there.

“Very often young people aren’t taught these things anywhere else," says Jude McPhail, who runs the cotillion program through the Shirley McPhail School of Dance. "People are busy with their schedules and working and sports and school, so these things are often just not concentrated on. Plus, a lot of families don’t know these things to teach their kids.”

But critics say these lessons can reinforce gender stereotypes of boys and girls, which is also a big criticism of single-sex schools in general. Rebecca Bigler is a UT professor who studies single-sex education. She says she was concerned by one etiquette lesson at the all-boys school, where boys were taught to walk a little bit behind their date because their dates will have high heels and they might slip and fall and they should catch them.

“Some of these boys may well have dates who are not female," Bigler says. "Some of these boys may have dates who do not wear high heels. The idea that women who wear high heels and want their date to walk behind them and catch them is sexist at its core.”

Principals at both single-sex schools dismiss the criticism that the schools produce students who act more stereotypically male or female, although there is research thatindicates that the more children interact with children of the same sex, the more their behavior becomes differentiated by sex.

But, say the schools' principals, the students aren’t completely isolated. They interact with the opposite gender in their neighborhoods. Plus, students have dances and parties together — and the girls cheer for the boys sports teams.

Bigler says those situations just reinforce gender stereotypes, too.

“That doesn’t prepare them for the real world of gender and the complexity that’s going to be out there,” Bigler says.

Principal Savina at the all-girls school isn’t worried the cotillion will cause problems.

“They’re learning things like table manners, and who doesn’t need to know table manners?" Savina says.

As the cotillion class wraps up, J’lissa Weeks says they think more of their classmates could benefit from a class like this.

"Some people don’t learn manners. They say stuff like really just bad [at school]. There’s really bad girls there.”

For some students, stereotyping boys and girls matters less than making sure their classmates aren’t acting up and preventing them from learning.

Video for the gifs by Ilana Panich-Linsman for KUT.

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