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Class Divide: Single-Sex Schoolrooms Take Off

Some Wary Of Growing Trend, But Advocates' Fervor Is Catching

June 12, 2007
By JIM FARRELL, Courant Staff Writer

Jermaine Boykin's feelings were clear when asked why he likes being in a class of only boys.

"Because girls can be mad annoying," said the fifth-grader at Beecher School in New Haven.

Jermaine said it with a smile, but educators who are increasingly embracing single-sex classrooms can relate to his perspective, just as they can to that of girls frustrated by the sometimes bombastic behavior of boys.

"It creates an environment where learning is more focused," said Kathy Russell, the principal at Beecher, which is finishing its first year with separate boys and girls classes in fourth and fifth grade.

Spurred in part by a recent clarification of federal discrimination regulations, the numbers of single-sex classes and schools are increasing rapidly.

Ten years ago, only four public schools in the country were offering single-sex programs, according to the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, which is based in Maryland. This year, at least 262 schools are offering single-sex programs, and the number is expected to surpass 300 next fall.

The state Department of Education does not keep track of schools that offer single-sex classes, spokesman Tom Murphy said, but he noted that such schools are rare.

However, New London is planning a pilot program of single-sex classes for sixth-graders next year. Hartford is considering creating all-boys or all-girls academies as part of a plan to shake up its schools. And Manchester officials recently discussed trying single-sex classes.

Russell said she decided to split classes by gender this year largely because of the number of discipline problems the students, especially the boys, had last year.

"It was just a stabilizing tactic, but it's really worked for us," Russell said.

She said classes are more orderly than a year ago and said the boys and girls "seem to appreciate each other more and have developed a healthy spirit of competition."

Changes in achievement are hard to quantify, Russell said, but she added "my fourth-grade girls are soaring academically."

Pros And Cons

Advocates for single-sex education cite a variety of advantages, including the notion that separating boys from girls actually breaks down gender stereotypes.

Leonard Sax, the director of NASSPE, said educators in single-sex classes can teach in ways that respect fundamental differences between boys and girls.

For example, Sax said research shows that the language areas of a girl's brain generally develop before the areas used for spatial relations. A curriculum that ignores that difference can lead girls to believe they are not good at math.

Likewise, he said, the hard-wiring of boys' brains lead them to be less comfortable talking about their emotions.

Since the 1970s, educators have been trained to ignore gender differences, Sax said, and in doing so they have unwittingly worsened stereotypes.

He said studies show that girls are less likely to study subjects such as physics and computer science, and boys have not done as well with foreign languages and subjects such as history and music.

"Kids learn differently," he said, adding that giving parents the chance to put their children into single-sex environments is "really a matter of social justice."

David Sadker, a professor at the School of Education, Teaching & Health at American University in Washington, takes a different view.

"The research is overwhelmingly confusing and contradictory," he said, adding that it is reckless to make systemic changes without a thorough analysis of empirical research and without a thoughtful implementation plan that includes proper professional development.

Sadker also has concerns about issues other than academic achievement.

"Our country is already hyper-segregated," he said, and single-sex schools could create more problems than they solve.

For example, Sadker said boys taught in a single-sex class could be more likely to develop misogynistic attitudes.

"This doesn't mean that schools don't need to improve," said Sadker, who noted that education has a history of embracing fads. "But we need to individualize instruction in other ways. Kids are more than their gender."

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, also opposes single-sex programs, in part because she said females routinely end up getting cheated whenever supposedly parallel programs are created.

"Eventually, the boys will get better teachers, more resources, etc.," Gandy said.

She also said studies highlighting minor, nuanced differences between the genders are deceiving.

"Overall, there's a huge overlap between boys' and girls' skills," she said. "To separate them on the basis of tiny differences just doesn't make sense."

Letting Boys Be Boys

One of the oldest single-sex public school programs in the country is at Hartford's Fox Middle School, which started an all-boys academy in 1995 and added a similar program for girls a year later.

"Single-gender education gives our children the opportunity to strip away many of the distractions that are obstacles to their growth and development," said Sheldon Neal, an assistant principal who oversees the 80 boys and 100 girls in the separate clusters embedded within the school of 580 students.

Although they have not conducted studies comparing the academic performance of students in the academies to that of students in mixed-gender classes, officials at Fox say they are confident the single-sex approach is effective.

"For the guys, they don't have the pressure of having to compete for the girls' attention as much," said Bobby Gibson, a science teacher at Fox. "They can just be boys a little longer."

Ginger Whitaker, who teaches English in the girls' academy, concurs.

"The dynamic changes when boys are present," she said.

Stacie Boyd, an eighth-grader at Fox, said she finds it easier to focus in a class of all girls.

"If boys were there, I wouldn't raise my hand as much, I'd be quiet," she said, adding that there are plenty of places to socialize with the boys, such as in the cafeteria.

Darron Sheridan, also an eighth-grader at Fox, said he likes being with all boys because, he said, teachers tend to emphasize sports more in lessons.

"Like we'll figure out points per game in math class," said Darron, a big Lakers fan.

Catching On

Experts say the recent surge of interest in single-sex education is due to a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind Act that encouraged experimentation in such an approach to education. That led the federal Department of Education to publish new regulations last fall that explained how districts can provide single-sex opportunities without violating statutes prohibiting discrimination.

"Schools were fearful before because it wasn't clearly legal," said David Chadwell, a teacher at The Two Academies at Dent, a pair of single-sex middle schools in Columbia, S.C. "Now it's really taking off."

The new regulations cover a variety of areas. For example, they allow a school to offer a single-sex classroom as long as there is a coeducational class in the same subject at the same school. Also, a review must be done every two years to determine the effectiveness of the approach.

Districts also can create a single-sex school as long as it offers courses, services and facilities that are substantially equal to schools elsewhere in the district. A district also can create an all-boys or all-girls school without necessarily creating a similar school for the other gender.

Chadwell said districts are sometimes leery because there is not a great deal of data from U.S. schools validating the benefits of single-sex education, and he noted that teachers worry about getting appropriate training so they can tailor their instruction.

"But there's definitely a movement afoot," he said.

Doreen Fuller, the assistant superintendent for New London, attended a conference run by Chadwell a few weeks ago and came away impressed.

"Teachers I met there absolutely love it," she said, adding that she is hoping to see academic, social and behavioral improvements among the students in the pilot classes next year.

Christine Coursen, who teaches the fourth-grade girls class at Beecher School in New Haven, said she is thrilled with the single-sex concept.

"Behavior issues are down, the camaraderie has been fantastic - this year is like heaven," she said.

Coursen cited other significant variables, notably class size. She has 15 girls this year, compared with 27 boys and girls last year.

But she said even the instructional climate is different and allows her, for example, to spotlight female heroines in stories in a way she might not have done last year.

Coursen said she already is excited about spending next year in a single-sex classroom.

"I can't think of a negative thing to say about it," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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