When Prep School Goes Coed Following The Lead Of Many Other Private Schools, Lawrenceville Finally Broke With Tradition To Admit Girls

Posted: March 20, 1988

LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — When the boys at Deerfield Academy, the prestigious Massachusetts prep school, stormed out of their cafeteria several weeks ago to protest the school's decision to admit girls for the first time, there were young men at the Lawrenceville School here who grumbled in sympathy.

For 177 years, Lawrenceville was a place for boys and boys only.

Girls would arrive by the busload for weekend dances and vanish by Sunday morning.

The rest of the week at the school, which teaches grades nine through 12, was devoted to a manly world of lacrosse, Chaucer, German grammar and quadratic equations.

But, after resisting the pressures that caused dozens of other private schools to go coeducational in the 1970s, Lawrenceville's trustees opened the gates to girls several months ago.

Now 178 of the 725 students are female. Admitting girls, school officials say, was the logical thing to do.

"The number of top-notch boys that we wanted to have was decreasing in

size," says Bert A. Getz, chairman of the board. "The good boys who could go anywhere wanted to go where they could sit next to the cute girls."

And although administrators say the transition has been smooth, the arrival of girls on the 360-acre campus just outside Princeton did not occur without a note of contention.

"There were kind of utopian expectations of the girls," said Derek Ferguson, a senior, as he ate lunch in one of the boarding school's cafeterias.

"We were told they'd be so much smarter. They're morons, most of them."

"They take real easy courses and get real high (grades)," said Adam Heiligman, another senior.

In addition, the girls are cliquish, took the best dorms and increased the competition for some top student-leadership posts, the two boys complained. They said teachers now curse less in class.

Cursing aside, Lawrenceville and some of the oldest male prep schools in the country have found it increasingly difficult to refuse girls in a world where coeducation is taken for granted.

After rejecting the idea twice in the 1970s, Deerfield Academy's trustees decided Jan. 30 to make the switch. Not everyone was happy, including 50 students who shouted, "Better Dead than Coed."

"Adolescents can be very conservative. In general, they don't like change," said Robert Kaufmann, headmaster of Deerfield, which was founded in 1797. However, some alumni also were disappointed.

"Some people said, 'You jumped ship just as it came into shore.' Some people think the pendulum is swinging back and . . . . men and women will take a more traditional place in society," he said. "A lot of us think that's not going to happen."

The Rev. Edwin M. Ward, headmaster of St. Stephen's School for Boys in Alexandria, Va., agrees. "The only (serious) argument I've heard put forth in favor of single-sex boys' education is that the girls distract the boys from their studies," he said. "If you think about that even for a minute that's a thoroughly sexist statement."

St. Stephen's, a day school, has seen a drop in enrollment that school officials blame partly on the lure of coed schools. It will admit girls for the first time next year.

More than 200 private prep schools have held out against the trend toward coeducation over the last two decades, but every year more make the conversion. Educators predict the numbers will keep dwindling, but that there will always be some single-sex schools.

"We're not at all seriously looking at the issue," said W. Boulton "Bo" Dixon, head of the Haverford School, a boys' day school in Haverford with 710 students. "We believe if you offer a quality education, the issue of gender is very much a secondary thing."

Of the 870 private prep schools that belong to the Boston-based National Association of Independent Schools, one-fourth are single-sex institutions, including 96 boys' schools and 109 girls' schools. Compare that to 1963, when of the organization's 682 members, two-thirds admitted only boys or girls, including 255 boys' schools and 166 girls' schools.

"Most of them changed between 1970 and 1975," said Selby Holmberg, a spokeswoman for the association. In the last few years, the pace of conversions has picked up again, she said, with 17 schools going coed since 1980.

"We think there's a renewed interest in coeducation now," Holmberg said. ''Part of it is just a matter of economics. There are fewer school-age children, and by becoming coed, (private) schools) have a larger pool to draw


Lawrenceville - where tuition, room and board run about $11,500 a year - has the fourth-largest endowment of any private school in the country and is not in financial straits, school officials said. But, they see the writing on the wall.

"We really began to think that 15 to 20 years from now there will be hardly any parents at all who were a product of a (single-sex) environment like Lawrenceville," said James Zimmerman, a spokesman for the school. Many of these parents would be reluctant to send a child to an all-male school. ''It's a bit more alien," he said.

Change did not come quickly. During the last 17 years, Lawrenceville's board of trustees five times voted down the idea of going coed.

"The people on the board genuinely believed that Lawrenceville did a very good job of being an all-males school," said Zimmerman. "They weren't wistful old men wishing they could relive the past."

Lawrenceville is known for sending large numbers of its graduates to the country's most elite colleges, and its teachers tend to come from these same schools. Thornton Wilder wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey while a teacher here.

"There is one line of thinking that the male bonding is very strong and you make better friendships" at an all-male school, said Bert Getz, who graduated from Lawrenceville in 1955. "I don't know whether that is the case or not. I can't deny I made a lot of excellent friends in those years."

"People do talk about a special kind of camaraderie among all-male groups. My experience is that that is often based on a kind of macho spirit that's not healthy," said Mr. Ward of St. Stephen's.

Are boys and girls who go to single-sex schools less able to cope with the real world? Said Dixon: "I find that I continue to ask our alumni whether or not an all-male experience put them in any kind of compromising position with respect to their preparation to handle themselves in college or after, and I continue to get a resounding, 'No, it did not.' "

However, faculty members at Lawrenceville were overwhelmingly in favor of the switch. "Some of these young men are going to go off and be corporate executives," said Graham Cole, dean of faculty at Lawrenceville and acting headmaster when the trustees voted in 1985 to go coed. "Frankly, I think it can be a handicap to have spent four years in a high school setting without working with members of the opposite sex."

On the other hand, Cole said, "It's arguable that we do need single-sex girls' schools where women can work in isolation without the stresses and strains of the coeducational environment. I hear heads of all-girl schools defending their role with more conviction and I think they're right."

Blair Stambaugh, headmistress of the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, said, ''Our school for the foreseeable future will remain a girls' school because we believe in what we're doing." Without boys around, girls can freely occupy student leadership positions and participate in activities usually controlled by boys, she said.

Said Ward: "There's still enough of a feeling around that males dominate females when they're in a mixed situation to cause some girls and women and parents to feel that girls can develop more self-esteem in those formative years if they're not mixed in with the boys."

And what do the first female students at Lawrenceville think of their ''pioneer" status? At least one senior enjoys being outnumbered by her male classmates.

"I'll never have this good of a ratio wherever I go," said Merrill Builder, a senior from Florida and one of the 30 girls in the 200-member senior class. "I'm not intimidated by boys at all."

"At the first barbecue (last fall), the girls were on one side and the boys were on the other, and it was really obvious that people felt, 'Oh no, this is not going to work,' " said Jenny Rose, a senior from Rumson, N.J. ''Most of the guys are really proud and protective of Lawrenceville and don't like to see change. It wasn't like they were rude, but I felt watched."

The girls quickly made a good impression, she said, and the tension eased.

The girls' field hockey team lost only one game, earning the title of Mercer County Co-Champions, and the girls' tennis team was undefeated. Said Builder, "If our teams didn't do well, boys would have said, 'Oh well, see what I mean?' "

Builder said the boys have been taken aback by how smart the girls are. "I think they thought we were not as intelligent," she said. "They were surprised that we had intelligent comments" in class.

They didn't praise the girls' intelligence, but a few of the school's male seniors said they approve of coeducation in theory. "You can't grow up without girls," said Derek Ferguson.

"Our dances used to be like a meat market; now you can get to know the girls as friends," said Mark Heckel.

But, they also feel nostalgic. Said Bob Burgess, another senior, "As long as there are males here who remember it as a male school, there are going to be problems."

comments powered by Disqus