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NEW YORK - Despite legal threats from civil rights groups and the National Organization of Women (N.O.W.), New York City's Board of Education last month unanimously approved a girls-only public school in East Harlem which opened its doors the first week of September. As expected, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Rights Coalition, and the New York chapter of N.O.W. immediately filed lawsuits to close it down.

On first learning of the school, NYCLU Executive Director Norman Siegel urged New York Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew to block the opening of the Young Women's Leadership School for 50 underprivileged 7th-grade girls. "We trust," Siegel wrote, "that you would not knowingly authorize or acquiesce in the establishment of an illegal educational program, and we therefore call upon you to investigate this matter immediately and stop it if in fact the proposal is to exclude students solely on the basis of their gender."

A prominent philanthropic couple, an education research organization, and Harlem Community School District 4 have collaborated over the last 10 months to open this single-sex public school, the first of its kind in New York City in a decade. The rationale behind the school, according to Seymour Fliegel, senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation, is based on studies that girls, particularly those from poor neighborhoods, perform better in classrooms without boys. The curriculum emphasizes two subjects in which girls traditionally lag behind: math and science.

Opposing groups call the school discriminatory, saying that sexual equality forbids segregation based on sex. In a letter to the Chancellor, Siegel cited the Supreme Court's ruling that Virginia Military Institute, as a public institution, must admit women. "While it may be well-intentioned," he said, the proposed school "would violate both the federal Constitution as well as federal statutory law."

George Shebitz, lawyer for the Center for Educational Innovation, disagreed. The school "is a response to an educational need that up to now has not been met" and "doesn't preclude the Board of Education from starting an all-boys school."

A 1991 law in New York City prohibits public single-sex schools but, because no such entity has existed there since 1986, the law has not been challenged. The last all-girls public school in New York City, Washington Irving High School, turned co-ed in 1986 by order of Chancellor Nathan Quinones, who feared violating civil rights laws.

The difference between the proposed New York middle school and two all-girls public schools in Baltimore and Philadelphia is that the latter do not state that their mission is to educate only girls. "Boys can apply," said Glenna M. Hazeltine of the Philadelphia school district. "But they just have never come here."

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