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From Google to Facebook, the nation's biggest tech companies are dealing with work forces that look a lot alike -- white and overwhelmingly male. But the problems for girls start in grade schools, some say, well before future innovators arrive in places like Silicon Valley.
One determined band of Los Angeles educators thinks it has an answer: a girls-only public school that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math -- designed to boost girls' flagging performance in those "STEM" subjects compared to their male peers.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) voted in late April to approve the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA), a project spearheaded by LAUSD administrator and former teacher Liz Hicks.
The proposal will now head to the California Board of Education, which must grant a waiver to open a single-gender school in a public district -- but not everyone is a fan of the idea.
Proponents of schools like GALA say girls aren't given the tools they need to succeed in science and other classes, leading to a lack of confidence and experience that winds up pushing them away from careers in fields like computer engineering. But critics argue single-gender schools pander to stereotypes about learning that are based on weak research, and have no place in taxpayer-funded public districts.
The numbers are indisputable, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: By 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer science-related jobs available in the U.S. and only 400,000 computer science graduates with the skills to apply for those jobs. Women make up only about a third of the workforce at tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter, and the numbers are even smaller at top management levels.
It's a thorny issue rooted in debates over education, opportunity disparities across race and class, and America's overall approach to STEM -- and the many sides involved disagree on how to solve the problem.
To Hicks and LAUSD, the answer is a school called GALA.
"About three years ago, there were a bunch of us at LAUSD who had put our daughters in all-girls schools," Hicks, who sent her daughters to the private Marlborough School rather than the city’s public schools, told NBC News in an interview. "We started looking at each other, saying, 'Why can't we offer this kind of program at L.A. Unified?'"
Six years of computer science
GALA is designed to tackle several entrenched issues that start both inside and outside the classroom. The school's proponents want to narrow the achievement gap between boys and girls, and address the disparities in education across race and class. They want to offer private school-quality programs in a public setting, and ultimately put some of LAUSD's girls in a position to help fill an increasing demand for technical jobs.
"There are so many [job] openings that can't be filled, and for girls -- girls of color in particular -- to be able to train for those jobs, be leaders in the field and help pull their families up ... the impact could be huge, beyond L.A. Unified," Hicks said.
GALA's 10-person design team, led by Hicks, submitted a 36-page proposal for the school on October 20, 2014, that was modified in February before the school board's April vote. If the proposal receives state approval, GALA will open in 2016 and ultimately grow to 700 students spread across grades six through twelve, supporters hope. All LAUSD students who identify as female may apply, and spots will be awarded based on a lottery system.
The school would require a full six-year sequence of computer courses in addition to the four years of both math and science mandated at many schools. Students will take a seven-period school day, which includes an "anchor" advisory group at the beginning and end of the day "to assist in academic, operational and social-emotional well-being."
The school's proposal is modeled after the curricula of other single-gender schools across the country, and in particular the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem in New York City, founded in 1996.
"It's a 'whole-girl' approach: emotional wellness, building confidence, developing a voice," said Anne Adler, the executive director of the Young Women's Leadership Network that now supports five New York City leadership schools. "We're creating a space that is safe for them to own that voice and be leaders in their school and beyond."
For LAUSD's girls to have a chance to lead in STEM fields, they need early intervention, argue Hicks and the GALA team.
The team included LAUSD students' test scores in the GALA proposal, including one chart that tracked the percentage of female students in grades 5, 6, 8 and 9 who earned "proficient" or "advanced" scores on the math section of the statewide California Standards test.
In the 2011-2012 school year, the most recent data cited in that chart, 61.5 percent of grade 5 girls scored at least "proficient" in math -- a number that fell to 44 percent for girls in grade 6, less than 38 percent in grade 8 and finally a mere 20.5 percent in grade 9. Trends were similar for girls' science scores.
Boys' scores showed the reverse trend: They scored lower at the beginning of middle school and moved steadily upward as they approached high school.
It's difficult to pin down why girls' performance in STEM subjects declines so rapidly as they get older. Is it subconscious stereotyping in the classroom that favors boys' participation? Does something make girls lose their confidence over time and convince themselves they can't perform well in math and science, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Robin Hauser Reynolds, director and co-producer of the new documentary "Code: Debugging the Gender Gap" -- which tackles the lack of women in programming jobs -- said much of the blame lies in cultural stereotypes.
"The stereotype of a programmer is someone who wears glasses and a hoodie and is white and sits in the basement until 3 in the morning," Reynolds said. "I just don't think girls or people of color can see themselves in that. And you can't believe you can be what you can't see."
Today's girls don't have many mainstream female role models in STEM fields, Reynolds said, and if they aren't inspired early, it's tough to try to begin in high school or college. She cited figures from the National Science Foundation: Approximately 16 percent of American computer-science degrees are awarded to women, down sharply from 35 to 40 percent in the mid-1980s.
"Building those skills has to start early -- I'd argue schools [like GALA] should start even earlier than sixth grade -- and girls just aren't given that option," Reynolds said. "And then, even the women who power through and enter these fields may feel sidelined, made to feel small, in the workplace."
Reynolds said "we need to get computer science into all schools at every level,” but she calls schools like GALA "a step in the right direction."
But not everyone agrees.
Does single-gender schooling work?
GALA's "whole girl" approach aims to narrow the gap, but decades of debate and research over the efficacy of single-gender schools leave the picture muddied.
On one side are groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed complaints and lawsuits against single-gender schools nationwide as part of its "Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes" initiative.
In an email to NBC News, Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Women’s Rights Project, said the group's position is based on evidence showing single-gender schools aren't better than co-ed and therefore aren't "legally justified."
But what the ACLU is most concerned about, Sherwin said, are "schools that rely on and perpetuate sex stereotypes. It is precisely this sort of sex stereotype that our laws against sex discrimination were designed to prevent."
But the data out there isn’t quite so easy to summarize, researchers say.
"Frankly, people on both sides of the issue have been cherry-picking findings," Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied gender disparities in education, told NBC News.
To avoid the selective use of statistics, Hyde and her team conducted an analysis of existing studies that represented testing from 1.6 million students in 21 countries. Hyde's conclusion, released in February 2014: "In well-designed studies, you don't see advantages in single-sex schooling."
"I think these schools [like GALA] are based on good intentions and a lack of information," Hyde said. "And we feel this achievement gap with other countries. We're desperate to do as well in math and science, and when people are desperate they grasp at straws, at a way to fix the problem."
When designing a study, Hyde told to NBC News, it can be difficult for researchers to control for confounding factors like parents' income levels -- as well as intangibles like a student's own desire to succeed. Would that young woman passionate about her education have done just as well at a co-ed school given her determination?
That last factor is an important one -- and another well-known researcher says it's so difficult to control for that she can't identify research that adequately settles whether single-gender schools offer any benefits.
"I just don't think there is quality research out there," said Linda Sax, a professor in the graduate education school at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The research tends not to be able to control for that self-selection bias."
So, Sax said, "I don't have an answer" to whether single-gender public schooling is a good idea. But she pointed to "a consistent intangible" that young women cite as a major benefit.
"At every single school I've visited, the young women talk about feeling like they can take risks [in all-girls schools]," Sax said. "They feel supported. They feel free to do it. Now the question is: Can we create a safe space for them in a co-ed environment, where they're not the only girl in the computer science class and they can raise their hands? I'd like to think yes, but in the current climate, it's difficult."
'I tell them, just look at the results'
Liz Hicks, the GALA team leader at LAUSD, and other people who run similar schools across the country say they don't get caught up in arguments over the data, because they have seen the results firsthand.
"People get into this whole debate, and I tell them, just look at the results," said Adler of the Young Women's Leadership Network in New York City.
Adler is quick to rattle off statistics proving those results: The girls at the Young Women's Leadership Network of schools earn degrees from four-year colleges at triple the rate of their peers in New York City public schools.
"It's proven that this works, and it's a great opportunity for our girls at LAUSD," Hicks said. "We want to take a leadership role as one school district and help make changes that will affect everyone."