More schools are sep­a­rat­ing boys, girls

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

More Amer­i­can ele­men­tary and se­condary schools are em­brac­ing the idea that a stu­dent will per­form bet­ter in the class­room when a key dis­trac­tion is re­moved: the op­po­site sex.

Sin­gle-gen­der class­rooms within coed schools have ex­ploded in num­ber over the past decade, ris­ing from about 50 in 2003 to more than 400 this year. South Carolina is lead­ing the way, with more than 100 districts of­fer­ing all-boy and all-girl classes. Schools in the District of Columbia and 39 other states, in­clud­ing Mary­land and Vir­ginia, also of­fer classes geared specif­i­cally to­ward each gen­der, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Sin­gle Sex Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion (NASSPE).

Crit­ics liken the ap­proach to seg­re­ga­tion, but pro­po­nents counter that the prac­tice cre­ates a bet­ter learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment and frees teach­ers to tai­lor les­son plans to their stu­dents.

“Girls will usu­ally say that they’re able to share their ideas more in an all-girls class­room. Boys will tend to say that they’re not dis­tracted by the girls,” said David Chad­well, South Carolina’s co­or­di­na­tor for sin­gle­gen­der ini­tia­tives.

In all states, sin­gle-sex classes are op­tional. Un­der fed­eral law, states and districts must of­fer tra­di­tional coed set­tings, so par­ents vol­un­tar­ily sign up their chil­dren for sin­gle-gen­der ses­sions in math, science and other core sub­jects.

Typ­i­cally, art and mu­sic classes re­main open to ei­ther sex, and in most cases, boys and girls still in­ter­act in hall­ways be­tween pe­ri­ods, at lunch or dur­ing phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion classes.

Sup­port­ers don’t sug­gest that boys and girls learn sub­ject mat­ter dif­fer­ently. Rather, nat­u­ral con­trasts be­tween boys and girls com­bined with so­cial fac­tors can lead to big dif­fer­ences in how they act in the class­room, said E. Mark Ma­hone, di­rec­tor of neu­ropsy­chol­ogy at Bal­ti­more’s Kennedy Krieger In­sti­tute, which spe­cial­izes in child brain de­vel­op­ment and dis­or­ders.

Boys of­ten re­tain “in­ter­fer­ing be­hav­iors” longer than girls, which some­times can lead them to dis­rupt class, he said. Some girls may be more re­luc­tant to speak up for fear of em­bar­rass­ing them­selves in front of their male coun­ter­parts.

“There are a lot of fac­tors that go into learn­ing that can ei­ther en­hance it or get in the way,” he told The Wash­ing­ton Times in an in­ter­view. “There is a lot of ev­i­dence to sug­gest ben­e­fits for hav­ing sin­gle-sex ed­u­ca­tion.”

Schools that have suc­cess­fully im­ple­mented same-sex classes of­ten re­port more at­ten­tive stu­dents and fewer dis­rup­tions as well as a more lively back-and­forth be­tween teach­ers and their stu­dents.

“It has re­ally cut down on be­hav­ioral is­sues,” said Pat Put­tre, as­so­ciate su­per­in­ten­dent for mid­dle schools at Prince Wil­liam County [Md.] Pub­lic Schools.

Sev­eral schools in the county have of­fered sin­gle-gen­der classes. Some have worked, while oth­ers were dis­con­tin­ued be­cause of lack of in­ter­est. Wood­bridge [Va.] Mid­dle School is en­ter­ing its fifth year of of­fer­ing sin­gle-sex classes, and Ms. Put­tre said the re­sponse from both stu­dents and par­ents has been over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive.

Wood­bridge’s Fred Lynn Mid­dle School, how­ever, ex­per­i­mented with sin­gle-gen­der class­rooms last year with lit­tle suc­cess.

“They had min­i­mal par­tic­i­pa­tion,” Ms. Put­tre said. “They’re tak­ing a step back” but may try to rein­tro­duce sin­gle-sex classes in the fu­ture.

Fred Lynn isn’t the only one. More than 100 school districts have tried same-sex classes only to see the idea end in fail­ure.

“The most com­mon rea­son is a fail­ure to train the teach­ers,” said Dr. Leonard Sax, founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of NASSPE.

The needed changes in ap­proach don’t ex­tend to the cur­ricu­lum. State stan­dards dic­tate that the sub­ject mat­ter and ba­sic con­cepts don’t change de­pend­ing on the gen­der of the stu­dents.

In­stead, the “strate­gies” of teach­ers change, ac­cord­ing to Mr. Chad­well. He said South Carolina teach­ers, for ex­am­ple, develop more fluid les­son plans for boys, break­ing up the ses­sion with var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties and dis­cus­sions to hold stu­dents’ in­ter­est. In all-girls class­rooms, he said, teach­ers can be more tra­di­tional.

Re­gard­less of a teacher’s ap­proach, Dr. Sax said most par­ents nat­u­rally have ques­tions when a district im­ple­ments sin­gle-sex classes.

Districts are wise, he said, to address their con­cerns as soon as pos­si­ble, prefer­ably with ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sions with teach­ers and school ad­min­is­tra­tors. States that have the most suc­cess with sin­gle-sex class­rooms, he added, try to an­tic­i­pate par­ents’ ques­tions and con­cerns.

In South Carolina, for ex­am­ple, Mr. Chad­well’s full-time job is to travel from district to district, eas­ing the fears of teach­ers and par­ents.

“Teach­ers are usu­ally thrilled. Once they get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing, they say this makes a lot of sense,” he said.

In the state’s lat­est an­nual sur­vey, he said, more than 80 per­cent of par­ents said they were sat­is­fied with the sin­gle-gen­der ap­proach.

But some par­ents, Dr. Sax said, will sim­ply never ac­cept the idea.

“We’re not sug­gest­ing that ev­ery child should be in a sin­gle­sex class­room,” he said, “but we be­lieve that ev­ery par­ent should have the choice.”

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