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A Man Running an All-Girls School: Discuss

Friday, October 21, 2011 - 10:12 AM

Last week, Nightingale Bamford, a small all-girls school on the Upper East Side, named a man, Paul Burke, to be its seventh head of the school. Not surprisingly, private school parents had plenty to say, both while I was reporting on his appointment and in the aftermath of the article.

Many parents embraced the decision. “It’s not a question of ‘can a man lead Nightingale?’ ” one mother said. “It’s ‘is Paul Burke the right person to lead Nightingale?’ The answer is absolutely yes,” she said.

But not everyone was popping the Champagne. “People are up in arms about him being a man, and they are up in arms about the process,” said one father with a daughter at the school. “It looked like a set-up, since the other candidates were not very strong.” The other two candidates were women.

Dorothy A. Hutcheson, the school’s current leader, who has been there for 20 years, is a big Paul Burke fan and said as much when he was appointed. “I can attest that our new leader is a man of unparalleled integrity who believes deeply in our mission of educating girls’ hearts and minds,” she said in a news release.

Parents called me to enumerate the many positive changes he has made to the school as head of the Upper School. (Typical in the world of private schools, these parents would only discuss this off the record, even though what they had to say was positive.)

He started an honors council, where students review any honor code violations, rather than deferring to the administration. He developed a “big question” seminar, where girls explore broad and provocative subjects. Last year they examined the fairness of legacy policies at colleges. (Did Nightingale's own policies come up?)

He constructed a senior seminar series to help seniors get ready for college. (They delve into fun topics like time management, money, mental health and maintaining relationships with friends and family.) The class culminates in a four-day trip to the University of Vermont, where they stay in dorms and witness college living first hand.

The issue, it seems, is not whether Mr. Burke is admired. He is. Resoundingly so. It is whether an all-girls school should have a girl at the top.

Jean Monaco, an administrator at a private school and a mother of three girls and one boy (all of whom attended single-sex schools), says yes.

“I have no problem with men as educators,” she said, praising her daughters’ many male teachers. “But as an educator and as a mother of girls, I’m horrified they could say, ‘We couldn’t find a single woman to take this job.’ ”

Another parent said she could not imagine Brearley (which has its own leadership issues) making such a decision.

In an interview before the appointment of Mr. Burke, I asked Ms. Hutcheson this very question. Could Nightingale’s leader be a man? Absolutely, she said. (Unfair! She knew the answer!)

“We’re beyond all that, aren’t we?”

Ms. Monaco disagrees.

“Beyond all that? I think not. Just ask Hillary Clinton.”

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