Big Gender Gap Persists in Arts Schools, and Math and Science Schools. Why?

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series by staff that explores New York City — home to the most segregated school district in America. For more, click here

Even though the Department of Education has created special programs designed to attract more girls to its schools that specialize in math and science, boys continue to outnumber girls in these schools by a wide-margin. And for the middle and high schools that concentrate on music, fine arts, dance and theatre, there are no such citywide programs designed to attract more boys. Consequently, girls outnumber boys at arts schools by an even greater margin.

An analysis of gender ratios in these specialized schools over the last five years shows that math and science-focused schools are on average 58 percent male and 42 percent female. These percentages have remained virtually unchanged since the 2010 school year. Schools that specialize in the arts, on the other hand, are now 64 percent female and 36 percent male, a disparity that has grown slightly larger over the last five years.

 The DOE has not responded to repeated requests for comment about whether it has tried to address the imbalance of boys in the arts.

Last year, 52 percent of those taking Advanced Placement tests in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) were female, which represents an 8.3 increase between 2012 and 2014. During the same time period, the percentage of boys taking the AP tests rose by 6.9 percent. And for the city’s DNA Science Camp—a summer camp dedicated to gene science—applications from girls dominated the pool at 65 percent. Three-quarters of the camp’s enrollees ended up being girls, according to the Department of Education.

In addition, 65 percent of this year’s students selected for both the preliminary and final rounds of the NYC Science and Engineering Fair — a joint effort of the DOE and the City University of New York — were female.

The city’s Department of Education claims these numbers are a result of its successful initiatives aimed at encouraging female students to enter STEM fields, even though some have not achieved their goals. One such initiative is the Software Engineering Pilot, which DOE spokesperson Will Mantell said is a “multi-year computer science program focused on improving STEM access for girls as well as black and Latino students.” Now in its second year, the program’s participants are still only 40 percent female — lower than the city’s average female participation in STEM schools. The DOE recently unveiled a summer STEM program for 2nd, 7th and 10th graders that offers instruction to 1,200 students. The classes are in partnership with Microsoft and New York University Polytechnic Institute, though no special outreach to girls has been created. The DOE did not respond to request for comment as to why a female-targeted program achieves such low levels of female participation.

The High School for Construction Trades and Engineering in District 27 in Queens has one of the highest gender imbalances in the city. The average percentage of boys enrolled in the school is 68 percent over the past five years, while its enrollment has stayed, on average, at 900 students.

The number of girls entering the Queens high school fell sharply between 2011 and 2013, declining by nearly 20 percent in just over two years. According to Audrey Graves, the school’s parent coordinator, the school does not actively seek out female students because it already receives an overwhelming number of applications: Over 1,000 students competed for only 250 spots in this year’s freshman class.

Still, Graves said, the picture is better than it looks. She said the girls who do come to the school thrive. Last year the school’s valedictorian and salutatorian were both girls.

“They seriously out graded and out worked their competitors, their peers,” Graves said. “The bottom line is that the girls that are here are definitely not afraid to get their feet wet.”

The fact that girls are outnumbered by boys doesn’t seem to faze Uju Nwoke and Carmen Johnson, two of the school’s 125 female students. Both freshmen said they were drawn to the school because of its strong offerings in STEM courses.

“I came here because I wanted to be a biochemical engineer and this is probably the only school that has engineering and architecture in the name,” Johnson said.

But a few STEM-focused high schools in New York City have managed to maintain nearly an equal number of boy and girl students. One such school is the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in District 4, which has remained basically equal over the last five years, even though the percentage of female students has dropped slightly over time. In 2010-11, the school was 54 percent girls — the number has now dropped to 49 percent.

The school’s assistant principal for guidance, Michael Salek, said the success in achieving a balance between the genders is rooted in its programming.

“Fifty percent of our robotics team is female,” said Salek. “A lot of the advanced math programs are female.” One way the school administrators achieve this level of equity is because the school’s guidance counselors seek external programs such as Columbia University’s Robogals and HYPOTHkids where girls can participate in STEM education. The results have been favorable, he said.

The school’s valedictorians have been girls for six out of the last seven years. “The female students have outperformed the male students. It’s one female seeing another female student go,” Salek said. “They build upon it.”

An equal number of boys and girls have applied for next year’s class at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics. “We have made a deliberate effort to bring in more female students and get them involved in STEM,” Salek said.

Extra effort to target girls is necessary, said Katie Johnson, assistance professor of mathematics at Florida Gulf Coast University. Johnson said she has noticed that at a certain age, girls stop performing well in math, partly due to societal pressures and an ideas that math is a subject for boys.

“The best thing the DOE can do is support STEM programs that target middle-school girls,” she said. Girls encourage each other, she said, and having role models in STEM fields is important from a young age.

“It made a huge difference to me growing up that I had girl friends who also liked math,” Johnson said.

No such attention is paid to bringing more boys into schools dedicated to the arts, however.

At one of the city’s most famous arts high schools, Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan’s District 3 — whose famous alumni include Jennifer Aniston, Laurence Fishburne and Liza Minnelli— male students make up less than 30 percent of the student body.

At Talent Unlimited High School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the numbers are even lower: On average, boys account for less than 20 percent of students in the school.

But, some schools’ enrollment numbers are balanced.

Albert Shanker School for Visual and Performing Arts (I.S. 216) in Long Island City, Queens is one example of a school where the enrollment demographics mirror those in the district. In fact, there are slightly more boys (52 percent) than girls at the school this year— a ratio that has been steady for the last five years. The school has no special programs for boys, nor does it pay particular attention to balancing its gender ratio.

Rosalyn Henderson, the school’s parent coordinator, thinks the equal numbers may be due to the fact that Albert Shanker is a middle school, not a high school. “The students don’t know what they want to do yet,” Henderson said. “At this age it’s lines in the water–they’re still feeling their way around.”

Even in the wake of new programs that encourage girls to participate in STEM programs, gender disparities exist in science and technology-based schools and no programs that target boys to enroll in  arts or communication schools exist. It is unclear whether this happens when kids apply or when schools make their admissions decisions.

What is clear is that special programs aimed to change the gender balance help ease the gap, somewhat.

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