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Girls Only?

It sounded simple enough. Start a school in an underprivileged neighborhood. Accept only girls. Emphasize subjects - math and science - in which girls have traditionally lagged behind. And teach them the leadership skills they often lack.

But it's not so simple. The controversial Young Women's Leadership School opened its doors to 50 seventh-grade girls in New York's Harlem neighborhood yesterday, but its future is far from certain. That's because the school was designed as a public institution, not a private one. As such, it could face considerable legal hurdles. Consider, for example, that the Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional the state-funded Virginia Military Institute's refusal to admit women - a decision we supported.

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Planners of the girls' school have taken some steps to avoid such lawsuits, but stumbling blocks remain. For one, school officials have agreed to allow boys to apply, but concede that even if they do (and so far, none have), they're not sure they would be admitted. School organizers also say they will consider the school simply a program, part of a nearby coeducational junior high school. In practice, however, this "program" will have no contact with the junior high.

Despite these efforts, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, and other groups have filed a complaint against the girls' school.

Well-intentioned plans for single-sex schools in other cities have received little support from the courts. Four years ago, for example, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional Detroit's attempt to establish all-male academies to rescue boys who were at risk of dropping out.

In Harlem, planners initially tossed around the idea of creating an all-boys school too in hopes of avoiding legal tangles. But quite likely, that would have led to charges that one school was superior to the other.

A better option is for the school to focus on female leadership as planned, to experiment with alternative teaching methods, to give girls the encouragement they need to excel, but to admit qualified boys requesting admittance. Single-sex education can work well. But "public" means for the use or benefit of all. The 50 girls starting at the Young Women's Leadership School will benefit from the educational innovations offered there. Boys could - and should - too.

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