Jason Baeten thinks teenagers spend too much time posturing and preening in order to impress their peers of the opposite sex. That, and his belief that teenagers often do better both academically and emotionally when in single-gender schools, is behind his decision to head up a new one — a private, all-boys middle school in Berkeley.
Baeten will be head teacher of the East Bay School for Boys which will greet its first 18 incoming 6th graders on August 31 at its premises on the first floor of the Ecumenical Center of Berkeley at 1798 Scenic Avenue.
Baeten was Assistant Director and founding teacher for 10 years at the Julia Morgan School for Girls, and says there are obvious benefits to teaching teenagers in a single-gender environment. “It was clearly evident that girls loved being in an all-girls environment at Julia Morgan,” he says. “The school has an academically rigorous program but it also felt like a big slumber party.”
Baeten says Julia Morgan girls are taught to be confident and open their hearts up, and he and a group of parents began to ask themselves why such an environment couldn’t exist for boys.
A series of living room meetings — some hosted by Julia Morgan parents who also had sons — led, in the spring of 2009, to the creation of a steering group whose brief was to create a school which addressed the question “What does a dream school for boys look like?”
EBSB offers a conventional middle school curriculum — four staff, including Baeten, will cover all subjects — but workshop and cooking will also be part of the mix and the boys’ natural boisterousness will be channeled in a constructive way. Already students are helping set up classrooms, and the first week of school will see them using tools to build their own desks. Speaking to the Chronicle, Jo Villeneuve, father of incoming Berkeley student Dylan Villeneuve, said: “What a luxury for a school to say, we’re going to use all that energy,” he said. “We’re not going to thwart it.”
The school will open with an 18-strong 6th grade and grow year by year to reach three middle-school grades. Funding has been parent-driven, with no significant outside donors, and fees are pegged lower than average — $17,000 — to reflect, Baeten says, the school’s current “lack of bells and whistles”. A tuition assistance program is available for lower income families.
Baeten says a north Berkeley location was not their preference — the school would have preferred to be more commuter friendly in north Oakland or south Berkeley — but when the Scenic Avenue site came along it was the right place at the right time. Students are coming from as far afield as northern California (one family is moving down to the Bay Area from the Oregon border), San Francisco and Hayward.
EBSB is not the only all-boys school in the Bay Area. Pacific Boychoir Academy opened seven years ago in Oakland and there are three in San Francisco: Stuart Hall, Cathedral School and Town School for Boys. And some might question the need for another private school in the East Bay given that some existing schools are finding it hard to fill their classroom quotas.
Critics of single gender schools point to the artificiality of splitting up girls from boys when real life requires them to know how to work and play together. Baeten’s response to this centers on the needs of teenagers in particular. “Middle school is just three years when we can give boys the safe space they need to develop their core identity and become more confident. That way they will be better prepared for high school.” He adds: “They can become the men we want them to be.”