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Lopsided at the top

Girls outnumber the boys among valedictorians

Something's in short supply in the Boston public schools' list of valedictorians this year: boys. Twenty-four of the city's 30 high school valedictorians are girls.

"It's girl power, definitely," said Yahfreisy Delcarmen, the number one senior at the Economics and Business Academy in Dorchester.

For the past five graduating classes, girls have made up a majority of Boston's top-ranked high school seniors. But the lopsidedness of this year's crop of valedictorians stunned headmasters and top school officials. Some say it's the latest symbol of an academic gender gap entrapping the city's young men, who have higher dropout and lower college-going rates than girls.

In the class of 2000, 17, or about 60 percent, of Boston's 28 valedictorians were girls. The girls' share of the No. 1 rank started creeping up and reached 80 percent this year. Yet the senior class is 53 percent female.

The numbers reflect decades of local and national efforts to broaden girls' career aspirations and guide them into college, educators say. Professions largely off-limits to women just 50 years ago are now open.

Thomas W. Payzant, superintendent of the Boston public schools, said he has noticed the growing numbers of girls in the No. 1 spot, but did not expect to see so many this year.

"There's a lighter side to this, in that it's about time," Payzant said. "And there's a serious side, which really goes back to a commitment to all students regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic background."

The traditional gender gap persists on the SAT; boys continue to outpace girls on the college-entrance exam. But the pendulum swings the other way on other national measures.

Girls perform better in reading and slightly lower in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous national test. And girls earn higher grade-point averages, according to the US Department of Education.

Girls seem to rule in Massachusetts public schools: They generally have lower failure rates on the MCAS test and lower dropout rates. Girls also plan to attend college in higher numbers, according to state Department of Education surveys.

Two years ago, the "60 Minutes" television news show highlighted Hanover High School in a segment about how girls are outperforming boys. Hanover's honor society officers, class presidents, yearbook editors, and valedictorian all were girls.

In Boston, the state's largest school system, the divide is pronounced. Although slightly more boys than girls start high school in ninth grade, far more boys than girls quit over four years, records show.

Consider the class of 2002. When they entered the city's high schools as freshmen, there were 95 girls for every 100 boys. But when they crossed the stage at graduation four years later, there were 120 girls for every 100 boys, according to Andrew M. Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.

Sum said the problem exists statewide and is worse in large cities. He suggested several solutions, including higher academic goals and better mentoring for boys.

"A lot of the reasons women made gains is the programs for them -- programs for math, for science, that give them a high level of support," Sum said. "Somebody's got to go mentor those guys and say, `You've got to do better.' We've got to demand more of boys."

The No. 1-ranked girls in Boston and even one of the male valedictorians agree.

Many of the top 10 students in the high schools are boys, separated from the valedictorian ranking by fractions of a point.

But according to girls, the boys need a little more focus and a little less horsing around.

"Maybe girls have got the focus and the commitment more than boys," said Ngoc Hanh Nguyen, 17, East Boston High School's valedictorian."They're patient, they try to perservere through everything and they're willing to learn."

Marco De Jesus, Brighton High's valedictorian, said the girls are right. It all has to do with aspirations, he said, and many young men simply do not have any.

"It's not that they're not mature, but they're not thinking high, they're not aiming to go high in life," said De Jesus, 20, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic four years ago. "I'm very persevering. I'll do anything I can do to get what I want. I'm not lazy -- I work hard."

Delcarmen said she believes it's in girls' nature to be more focused.

"Guys are not as organized as we are," she said. "They're boys -- they mature a little bit after we do."

Delcarmen, born in the Dominican Republic, moved to the Bronx at age 7, and at first was raised by her aunt and grandmother. Two years ago, she came to Boston to be with her mother, and they stayed at family and friends' homes while looking for their own apartment.

Despite the frequent moving, she still ran track, joined the JROTC and took Advanced Placement classes.

The family of Alba Bego, the valedictorian at West Roxbury High School, fled war-torn Albania in 1997 after securing a visa through a lottery. Bego, 17, landed in an unfamiliar world, with gleaming skyscrapers, French fries and newspapers that published freely. Her motivation, she said, was making her parents proud of her success in a new land.

"Even in Albania, the guys at school didn't really care about school," Bego said. "Not that they were not smart. They didn't want to do any work, I guess. And the girls, they always competed."

The city will honor all 30 valedictorians tomorrow at its annual luncheon at the Boston Harbor Hotel. Seventeen were born outside the United States, hailing from Albania, Cape Verde, China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Vietnam.

As graduates lined up Friday afternoon in the gymnasium at East Boston High School, senior Michael McNutt pointed out the divide he noticed. Far more girls wore honor society vests than boys.

"I don't think it's because they're inherently smarter," McNutt, 18, said. " I know that my friends, boys, are doing crazy things, and the girls are focused."

Globe Correspondent Katie Nelson contributed to this report.

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