As soon as Lila Emerson-Fleming found out she'd gotten a seat in a Los Angeles Unified school that focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts and math — a "STEAM" school — she stopped considering other options.
"I love coding," the sixth grader explained, "and I love to engineer, and when I heard about this school, I thought it was a great opportunity."
But, Lila added almost as an afterthought, it was a great opportunity for another reason: "I'm also really proud that this is the first all-girls school."
Emerson-Fleming is part of the inaugural class of students at Girls Academic Leadership Academy, the first non-charter single-sex school for traditional public school students to open in California in 20 years. The school, known in shorthand as "GALA," will open its doors along with the rest of the district next week on the campus of Los Angeles High School in Mid-Wilshire.
At a ribbon-cutting for the school on Friday, attended by several local elected officials, it was L.A. Unified superintendent Michelle King holding the giant scissors. During a months-long listening tour of the district, King hasn't passed up an opportunity to mention GALA, holding it up as something of a poster-child for expanding school choice options in L.A. Unified.
GALA's focus on STEAM subjects is not an accident; women and girls have historically been underrepresented in science and technology fields.
"At my old school, we didn’t have much engineering and science," said GALA sixth grader Milo Sandgren, who attended a foreign language-themed charter school last year. "Now I hope to get to know what [STEAM subjects] I like, because I’ve really always liked math."
But Sandgren added — also essentially as an aside — that there might be advantages to having only girls in the school.
“When there are a lot of boys around, they’re usually running around and screaming," she said. "Especially, out our last school, they had food fights a lot and it was really distracting."
Eliminating the "distractions" of a co-ed setting so students can "focus on academics is part of single-gender schools in general," explained GALA's founding principal, Liz Hicks.
"It's about providing a choice to girls, because to this point, they haven't had the choice," she added. "In Los Angeles, in order to go to an all-girls school, you need to pay upwards of $30,000 a year. That's just not affordable for most of our students."
There's disagreement about whether single-sex education benefits students. Advocates say it helps boost rates of on-time high school graduation. But one meta-analysis found no significant advantage over co-ed schooling, and other critics say single-sex education increases gender stereotyping.
There's also a possible conflict between state and federal laws about the legal basis for single-sex education. There's no provision in California statute for single-sex schools. State law also explicitly prohibits discrimination in schools based on gender.
District officials had requested a waiver from the California Department of Education, but state officials said it could not judge a complaint against the school that hadn't been filed.
But federal law does allow for single-sex schooling so long as all students have access to equitable opportunities. L.A. Unified is planning to open an all-boys school on the campus of Washington Preparatory High School in 2017.
Hicks said she would welcome a change in state law clarifying that single-sex schooling is permissible.
"I've had many assistant superintendents and superintendents around the state contact me and say 'We're going to come watch and see what you're doing in your school because we probably want to start a single-gender model in our districts as well,'" said Hicks, "so I think to make it easier for local school districts to do that, it would be great if something was passed."