In their scholarly article “Too Many Boys Are Failing in American Schools: What Can We Do About It?” Barbara Jackson and Ann Hilliard offer a long list of troubling facts and figures about boys and their dismal performance in the classroom and in adolescence in general.
Here are just a few of these statistics: Boys commit suicide two to three times more often than girls, they make up more than 70 percent of school suspensions, they are 80 percent of high school dropouts, and they make up less than 44 percent of university students.
Now for some more bad news: this study was published in 2013.
Since then, the situation has only worsened. In late 2021, Christopher Brueningsen, the head of an all-boys boarding school near Pittsburgh, addresses this continuing slide in male failure in his online article “Boys in crisis: Schools are failing our young males,” adding that “working to make our classrooms more boy-friendly is an important step in resolving the crisis young men face in our country.”
Crisis is not too strong a word. Failure in the classroom leads to failure in life. Those boys who fall through the cracks have trouble finding meaningful work, have far higher rates of incarceration than females, and struggle to find their niche in society.
So how do we make classrooms more conducive to the development of boys? Is that objective even possible?
Enter Rebecca and Lee Taylor.
A Change in Direction
Years ago, Rebecca Taylor earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia as well as a middle school teaching certificate, and taught in the public schools for four years. Lee Taylor graduated with a law degree from Georgia’s Mercer University, and after a stint as a prosecutor, began fulfilling a life-long desire to practice as an attorney in a small town. After their marriage, Rebecca and Lee lived in North Georgia and eventually moved to Lexington, Virginia.
During that time, Lee operated a private practice as a lawyer while Rebecca fulfilled her dream of teaching in a “one-room schoolhouse” by homeschooling her four children for six years.
After the four children had left home, the empty-nesters looked for a new goal in life. “We were praying about what to do with our lives,” Rebecca said. She’d gone on several church-sponsored trips to Africa for a month at a time, where she’d taught a classical Christian curriculum in several schools, and they considered making that work their mission.
But in 2017 Rebecca began to read books and articles written about the struggles and trials of boys in American schools. The stories and statistics she absorbed from that study both saddened and disturbed her.
“Here’s the best thing we can do for our nation at this point,” she said to Lee.
He wholeheartedly agreed, and so was born the Buffalo Creek Boys School (BCBS).
Learning as Adventure
After operating for four years in the Taylor home on their 25-acre farm, BCBS this past year moved to Lexington Baptist Church, where larger classrooms, a chapel, ball fields, and a gymnasium were available. Lee is the school’s headmaster—he’s also a professional potter and a handyman, and shares those skills with the boys—and Rebecca teaches physical education, drama, art, music, and cooking. Army veteran Trae Bailey, Anglican priest Eric Parker, and engineer Carl Arosarena make up the rest of the staff, with several volunteers also offering their support.
With its stress on “Body, Mind, and Spirit,” the school day kicks off with physical training outside on the pavement. The boys then head off to morning prayer and academic instruction, which includes traditional subjects like science, history, and math, but also places a strong emphasis on rhetoric and logic. Recognizing that middle-school boys need hands-on activities to stay alert and engaged throughout the day, the staff takes a break from the books about every two hours, and the students play sports and learn handicrafts ranging from carpentry to sewing. They also spend time in what the school calls “Tinker,” where they have fun with projects like paper airplanes and block structures, and dismantling appliances to see how they work.
“Boys love to take things apart and see how they work,” Rebecca said. “We even have the town dump saving things for us. We just picked up a discarded vacuum cleaner there.”
The boys also practice archery and marksmanship—they use air rifles—and go on field trips that include camping out, hiking, spelunking, and rock climbing. Some of them who aren’t accustomed to spending much time outdoors find themselves amazed at times by nature’s grandeur.
“In our classical Christian approach to education,” Lee said, “we focus on seeing the entire world through a single lens, which is a state of wonder at God’s creation. In every subject—language, music, science, art, everything—our hope is that the students will explore and become amazed by God’s creativity.”
Stepping Up to the Mark
As researcher Peter West of Australia writes in “How Schools Are Failing Boys, and What We Can Do About It,” both here in the United States and abroad boys want more fun in school, more active learning, learning from experiments, relevance, and life skills. Buffalo Creek provides all of these plus one other crucial ingredient.
“Boys like to be challenged,” Rebecca said. “If they’re not challenged in some way, they’re not going to perform. As one boy told me about his old school, ‘My sixth-grade year was awful. All you did was sit there for seven hours a day and not learn a thing.’”
And BCBS students meet and overcome challenges other than physical ones. Their scores on the Iowa Test, a standardized exam offered nationwide, placed them on average four to five years ahead of grade level. Most of them had attended schools that had never required them to memorize math facts, yet when they enter Buffalo Creek, they typically learn their multiplication and division tables in three weeks. They read books, including scientific monographs written for graduate school students, aimed at students far beyond their years.
“If you tell a boy something may be too much of a challenge for him,” Lee said, “there’s something in that boy’s spirit that rises up and excels.”
Making a Difference in the World
BCBS is a tiny school, with enrollment running from eight to ten students. Though Lexington itself is a small town with a population of less than 8,000, the Taylors nevertheless hope to enroll more boys in their program. Even so, some observers might wonder whether the treasure, time, and talent the Taylors and others are expending on this endeavor are worthwhile for so few boys.
But after speaking with this couple so devoted to education and looking again at the smiles of the students on their website, I thought of that old story about the boy and the starfish. A man saw a boy on the beach surrounded by countless starfish the tides had left on the sand. The boy was taking these creatures one at a time and returning them to the water so they might live. The man laughed. “That’s a waste of time, son,” he said. “There are so many starfish, you’ll never make a difference.”
As he dropped another starfish into the water, the boy looked at the man and replied, “Well, Mister, I made a difference to this one.”