A Look Back on When Poly Became Co-Ed


Jess Dosik, News Editor

A fight for women’s equality begins

The 1970s marked a milestone in the history of the women’s rights movement. One of the movement’s main goals was to achieve equality for women and girls in education systems. According to a document titled “Co-Education: Co-ed at Last” from the Columbia University Archives, “After the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, an all-male education seemed anachronistic and incomplete to most. Many Americans came to view the denial of educational opportunities to women as fundamentally unjust.” 


On June 23, 1972, Title IX was passed, banning “sex discrimination in education programs and activities offered by entities receiving federal financial assistance,” according to the study “Equal Access to Education: Forty Years of Title IX.” The effects of this amendment would soon be seen in schools across the country, and over the next few years there would be some dramatic changes in educational opportunities for women. Throughout the 1970’s in New York City, schools like Trinity, Horace Mann, and Riverdale began taking the initiative to create space for both men and women to go to school, adhering to the dialogue of the newly passed Title IX. 


Today, Poly Prep has a variety of opportunities for students of all genders, however as it began as an all-boys private school, Poly did not always have the co-ed environment it does now. With influences from the women’s rights movement, Title IX, and countless other New York City private school peers making the change, Poly was faced with the decision of whether or not to become co-ed. 


The Decision

In 1973, surrounded by cries for equality and women’s rights protests, Poly Prep began to contemplate whether or not it was ready to become co-ed. At the time “there were quite a number of administrators and people who, I suspect, were influenced by the women’s rights movement,” said Harold Bernieri, Poly Prep class of ‘85 and current history teacher at Poly. 

Appointed members of the Poly Curriculum Committee began drafting a large document which they titled “Report on Co-Education.” This document is where they kept a summary of all of their discussions and arguments that would eventually lead them towards making a decision about the school. 


The committee decided that “In order to come to a consensus, two questions must be answered… If we are successful now, will the admission of girls destroy our success? And If we are successful now, can we be successful in the future without the admission of girls?” according to the “Report on Co-Education”, currently located in the Poly Prep library archives, 


This report also included a broken down list of pros and cons of becoming a co-ed school. Categories such as athletics, quality of male education, and facilities were all thoroughly discussed and transcribed into the Curriculum Committees’ report. 


According to this same report, some in the Curriculum Committee believed that co-education was just “a passing fad” and that Poly should not waste its time on such things especially since “the co-ed situation merely intimidates and hinders the boys in a competitive atmosphere.” Meanwhile, others argued that co-education would improve the quality of learning for both male and female students and that “the introduction of girls eliminates an unreasonably artificial atmosphere.”


In May of 1973 the Curriculum Committee, Poly’s board of trustees, and the heads of school reached a conclusion. According to minutes from a board of trustees and Curriculum Committee meeting, it was decided that “while coeducation was a vital issue that must be analysed and considered on a continuing basis and might well be implemented in the future, it did not rank at the top of the schools most immediate priorities.”


For some this may have been enough to table the discussion, but the headmaster at the time, William M. Williams was a major advocate for turning Poly into a co-ed school. “The alumni expressed lots of opinions and probably sort of a mixed bag but Bill Williams was committed to it. I think he thought…[students] needed to have coeducation so they understand they can talk to different people of different genders,” said Bernieri. 


On December 3, 1974, initiated by Williams, the faculty was split up into six distinct discussion groups based on their personal opinions about co-education. “Each small group was asked to be as open-ended as possible in its own discussion. Then one member of each group reported to the entire faculty on those keywords, concepts, or personal feelings which were discussed” read the Summary of Discussion written by the faculty. In the end, half of the groups voted in favor of co-education and the other three groups said that the topic needed more study before a decision could be made, according to the Summary of Discussion transcription. 


In 1974, a questionnaire was sent out to faculty, alumni, and parents in order to fully understand the desired outcome of the co-education decision. Out of 636 alumni responses, 392 voted for co-education, while 221 voted against it, and 23 were left undecided. Out of 49 faculty member responses, 27 voted yes, 20 voted no, and two were undecided. And out of 246 parent responses, 124 voted yes, and 122 voted no. 


In the same year, students across grades held a similar kind of meeting and discussion in which they discussed the issue of co-education and its possible effects on Poly. The Poly student council wrote to the Board of Trustees in a memo on October 23, 1974, stating that “we the members of the Student Council, believe that the student body at Poly overwhelming favors transforming the school into a coeducation environment if the conversion is effected along certain lines.” These lines included staying to the same academic standard, understanding of potentially increased competition, adjustment of athletic policies, and extended curriculum, according to their written email. 


Therefore, in 1975 after many more Board of Trustees and Curriculum Committee Meetings, the final decision was made. “Poly Prep… is now prepared to provide girls the same outstanding education experience it has given to boys for generations” announced the flier titled “An Historic Announcement”, sent out to alert everybody that Poly would admit its first class of female students in 1977, as juniors.  


A Co-ed Poly 

The first female Poly students arrived on campus in September of 1977. “For the boys… to now see girls around the school was probably a good thing … they were probably excited about it,” said Micheal Junsch, class of 1971, and current Poly girls’ varsity basketball coach. 


“I’ll call it tempered enthusiasm… I think that we were welcomed in the school, but I think that there were so many male traditions and they weren’t quite sure what to do with it to some extent,” said Beth Bonina, a female Poly alum from the class of 1979, the first graduating class including young women.  


Not only was the addition of girls different during these first few weeks of September, but Poly had to do a lot of reconstruction in order to accommodate girls coming onto campus. The Report on Co-Education documents that new bathroom facilities, locker rooms, and more were added to the school building in order to maximize the amount of comfort new students would have on campus. 


Another effort that was made was the addition of girls’ sports teams. Varsity sports for girls were established almost immediately after school started that first year in 1977. However, “the board wanted… to keep [poly] at a 60:40 ratio. 60 boys, 40 girls because they were concerned that the influx of girls could compromise the athletic program,” said Junsch. 


“I remember getting the feeling or the impression that there were some coaches who didn’t want the girls there because it was taking away from the guys’ sports,” said Bonina. 


Female Teacher Experience 


Although female teachers had been at Poly prior to becoming a co-ed school, teachers still encountered problems with other faculty members who were not enthusiastic about girls being at Poly. Susan Beiles, former history teacher at Poly since 1979, explained that she was once given the office of an older male English teacher. He had been at Poly for quite a long time and, according to Beiles, grew resentful of her for taking over his office. “Not only was it his territory but I was a woman,” Beiles said. 


Events like these were frequent, leaving Beiles sometimes feeling uncomfortable in a predominantly male institution. “Even in the 1980s girls were concerned about whether they were fully accepted… I think there was a feeling among some of the girls and maybe others in the community that Poly remained a boys school that had some girls,” Beiles continued. “I learned to be very careful with who I spoke to about my children… because to say ‘I can’t come in because my child was sick was not something that I was comfortable with.” 


Nonetheless, not every experience in these years was negative, as there were teachers who did their best to uplift and challenge the gender biases of the time.


“I remember I took the girls’ practice one day… and one of the players said to me ‘I can’t believe you’re working us this hard. We’re not the boys.’ Well I just ripped into her. I said ‘you expect me to treat you less than I do the boys. You expect me to lower my expectations because you’re a girl? No, not on my watch. And to this day she’s a very successful business woman. She says she never forgot that conversation,” said Junsch


While the move to co-education left some girls concerned about their acceptance at Poly, there was still much to be gained from teachers and experiences like these. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world because it taught me so much,” said Bonina.


A Look into the Future: The Poly Impact


Bonina went on to become a State Justice of the Supreme Court and is now a private mediator and arbitrator. According to National Mediation and Arbitration,  “In 2020, [Bonina] was voted the #1 Mediator and #1 Arbitrator in the state and has been voted the #1 Arbitrator in New York State five times in the last ten years.” Even now Bonina credits much of her accomplishments to her unique experience at Poly.


“In the legal field I’m dealing with a lot of…the older generations. And there’s many times where I’m the only woman in the room…I definitely think that Poly gave me that confidence to not be intimidated,” Bonina continued. “One of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life was to transfer schools and go to Poly because it opened up a whole different world for me that I never would have had the opportunities I did when I got to college.” 


According to the Poly Prep official website, “Admitting girls was just the first step in creating the diverse student body that is Poly Prep today.” Poly has been able to thrive both academically and athletically with the increased diversity created by the inclusion of girls to its campus. 


Despite the co-education committee’s fear that the athletics program would be damaged if a 60:40 boy to girl ratio was exceeded, Poly is now at a 48 percent population of female students and continues to be successful.


According to the Poly Prep Fast Facts webpage, Poly has 13 Junior Varsity and 28 Varsity sports teams. There are nine female specific sports teams, including softball, swimming, soccer, volleyball, and more. This past fall in 2022, both the girls soccer and girls volleyball teams won first place in the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) athletic championships.


Academics is also an area where Poly continues to shine after the decision to become a co-ed school. Described as a place with “academic programming that rival[ed] those at the most prestigious boarding schools of the time,” according to Poly Prep’s Mission and History Webpage, Poly is now ranking in the top 20% of private schools in New York according to Private School Review.


“I certainly believe that Poly really is a growing, evolving and wonderful institution but it’s not perfect because nothing is,” said Beiles.