Freedom High School salutatorian Hae-In "Amy" Kim walked on stage this week at graduation, taking one of the coveted seats reserved for the most accomplished seniors.
When she looked around, she couldn't help but laugh.
"Hey, we're all girls," she said to the Tampa school's valedictorian, student body president and student government president on stage with her. "Awesome."
There's no doubt about it — girls rule this year.
They make up more than 60 percent of the valedictorians and salutatorians in high schools across the Tampa Bay area, both public and private. In the fall, more of them will go to college than their male classmates. More will graduate. More will get jobs.
The trend has been gaining momentum for years, but it comes into sharp focus now as high achieving graduates collect their accolades. And it is forcing people to pay attention. See: calls for single-gender charter schools and similar programs in Tampa Bay school districts.
So what is going on with boys?
If you ask Tom Mortenson, an expert on the subject, many schools are simply not boy-friendly.
"I tend to think that the structure of K-12 education, which is sort of crowd-control, is an environment that girls can do better in," said Mortenson, an adviser to the Boys Initiative, a national campaign spotlighting the gap. "We've sort of forgotten about the boys."
In "For Every 100 Girls" — a project that compares everything from birth rates to college success — Mortenson documents the gender differences as they unfold in schools. Example: For every 100 girls suspended from public schools, 215 boys are suspended.
The problem, Mortenson says, starts in middle school, when differences in boys' and girls' learning styles and maturity become more clear.
Boys learn by using their hands, taking things apart or watching stuff blow up. Doing things. Girls are better at sitting attentively, listening and participating in discussions. With less time for recess or P.E. to expend pent up energy, boys are perceived in comparison as distracted or unruly.
Students in Tampa Bay's classes of 2011 said they saw that idea play out first-hand.
"We're probably just able to focus better in the classroom," said Carrie Hoffman, valedictorian at Seminole High School in Pinellas. She ended the year with a 4.78 grade point average, ahead of salutatorian Michael Paonessa, who had a 4.77 gpa.
Paonessa said he was surprised he made it that far, considering his weak start in middle school.
"That's when you get more freedom and stuff," he said. "You socialize a lot more. You can do your own thing."
For him, that meant being lazy. But for the girls?
"They always worked hard. I mean, like, perfectionists," Paonessa said. "I think it's just encoded in their genetics."
USF admissions director Bob Spatig said he sees differences in college applications, too.
While female students' grades tend to remain consistently good over four years of high school, boys usually get off to a weak start before gaining momentum as the years go on.
"We expect more of girls at that age, and I think it sets them up better," Spatig said. "I think we're more tolerant of boys being jerks — boys being boys."
Maybe that's why every Florida university is predominantly female, including the University of South Florida where women made up 57 percent of undergraduates last fall.
Spatig said he thinks the campus would be healthier if it were more evenly split. But by law, the university is not allowed to consider race, ethnicity or gender in applications.
"They're equally smart," Spatig said of boys and girls, pointing out that boys typically out-score girls on standardized tests. "It just seems like bright boys tend to underachieve until they're challenged."
Girls may have also gotten more encouragement through the years, said Freedom High's guidance counselor, Vivian Fiallo. "I think it's a matter of that they want to prove themselves," she said. "They want to show that, 'Hey, we can do this. We can do it all.' "
She doesn't think girls feel like they're in the shadow of the guys anymore — rather they're competing with themselves and each other.
And when the guys don't follow suit, even the smartest ones get left behind.
Nolan Wilson, a male Freedom High graduate, watched Kim and Berson with the rest of the masses on the ground floor of the Florida State Fairgrounds expo hall.
Wilson was no slacker, but when it came to rank, "they dominated me," he said of the top girls, both close friends of his. Wilson was No. 7.
"They're just an extra bit committed," Wilson said of the girls. "Don't get me wrong, I'm committed, too. . . . But they're working way harder than you would expect."
Wilson said he didn't pay much attention to schoolwork in middle school. And when he got to freshman year, he only took one AP class. That may seem sufficiently ambitious, but Wilson said by then, the girls already had him beat.
"I don't have regrets. I don't resent No. 6, 5, 1, or any of those people. All the hard work they put in, they earned the positions they got," he said.
But don't worry about Wilson, he's headed for Yale in the fall.
This time, he won't delay hitting the books.
And this time, he'll keep a close eye on the girls.
"They'll come back to get you," he said.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or 813-226-3337.