We continue to believe that single-gender education really maximizes learning,” says Douglas M. North, the head of school for the Albany Academies. And it seems that history is on his side. After all, the Albany Academies — which is actually two different schools — has been proving that successfully for 200 years now. A major bicentennial celebration kicks off next month.
In 1813, when the Albany Academy first opened, James Madison was president; the students, sons of Albany’s political elite, studied arithmetic and ancient Greek and Latin as part of their college-prep track. The following year the Albany Academy for Girls opened its doors, becoming the nation’s first female prep school.
And so the two schools continued on their separate but parallel paths until 2007, when they merged under one umbrella. They still operate mostly as two distinct, single-gender schools, until the final two years of high school when the classes become coed. “At that point, it is good experience for them to mix it up a little as they get ready to go off to college and the rest of life,” says Dr. North.
Still, Dr. North says, remaining single-gender until that point is optimal. “Boys and girls really grow up very differently, at different speeds, at different times,” he says. In the past, he notes, single-gender was seen as a great advantage primarily for girls. “Girls felt great social pressure to act dumb in the presence of boys, so it would tend to dampen their capacity to learn or to show themselves as the smart one. In a single-gender school, those things are minimized.”
But Dr. North insists that the benefit applies equally to males. “Boys also, under certain circumstances, get shy or restrained in the presence of girls. It is important for boys to be in an environment where it is cool to be smart. At the academy, it’s definitely cool to be smart.”
Competition to get into the academies is at an all-time high, says Dr. North. “There are about 20 slots for the ninth grade and usually about 80 applicants,” he says, noting that the school now attracts students from “Saratoga to Saugerties. About 150 of our students are from here in Albany; the rest of the 825 students are at varying distances. We have a couple of big buses that come down from Saratoga and make stops along the way. One of them has bucket seats and Wi-Fi.”
He attributes the school’s popularity, in part, to small classes (average size: 14), an extremely active parents association, and an innovative core curriculum. “This year, instead of teaching the same books, we’re allowing everyone to diversify their curriculum; we’ll see how that goes,” he says. Students can study four languages — French, Spanish, Latin, and Mandarin — and spring break exchange trips to France and China, as well as other countries, are popular.
The school also has a two-sport requirement. “From kindergarten up — everyone is involved,” says Dr. North, who personally knows how athletics can be a transforming experience. “When I was in ninth grade I weighed 98 pounds,” says the educator who graduated from the Albany Academy in 1958. “I was a real Charles Atlas. Somebody told me, ‘You ought to go out for wrestling.’ It really made a huge difference for me: I could think of myself as tough for the first time in my life. That has carried with me my entire life; it was huge.”
For information about the bicentennial celebration, visit www.albanyacademies.org.
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