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More public schools trying single-sex education

Separating boys and girls during instruction can minimize distractions, proponents say.

Single-sex education appears to be making a comeback, but with a new twist: A small but growing number of traditional public schools are experimenting with separate instruction for boys and girls to help meet each gender’s needs.

No longer is single-sex education defined only by all-girl or all-boy schools, in which the entire student body consists of just one gender. Other single-sex education models have emerged as well, such as the “dual academy” format, where boys and girls are in the same building but are separated all day except for special occasions; and the single-sex classroom model, which separates the sexes only for specific courses.

In some cases, these single-sex education programs are an attempt to combat lagging test scores, especially among male students. In March, the Center on Education Policy released a report of reading test scores showing that boys trailed girls in each of the more than 40 states that provided data. Separating boys and girls removes a potential source of distraction during class and can help them focus more on school, proponents say.

In other cases, single-sex education programs aim to bolster girls’ confidence in subjects that many lose interest in later on in their schooling, such as math, science, and technology.

Whatever the reason for the approach, advocates of single-sex education say there is evidence to suggest that it can be effective—though experts caution that it might not be ideal for every student.

Imagine Southeast Public Charter School, founded two years ago, operates under the dual academy format. It is one of at least four publicly funded schools in the District of Columbia using single-sex education, while there are a few others in Maryland and Virginia.

Imagine was founded as a single-gender environment, but other schools are making the switch from coed to single-sex classrooms to help improve student achievement levels. For example, educators from Arthur F. Smith Middle Magnet School in Louisiana say they’ve noticed improvements in behavior and schoolwork since switching to single-sex education this year.

“I thought it was crazy, I really did,” said seventh-grade English teacher Camille Shelfo. A short time into the new academic year, however, he has quickly changed his opinion.

“The first day, I saw my boys like I’ve never seen them before. They were focused, they seemed to be more challenged, they take more pride in their work—it just blew me away. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Shelfo, who has been an educator for 23 years.

There are at least 10 other public schools in Louisiana that have adopted a single-sex education model, three of which transitioned from coeducation last fall, reports the Associated Press.

While public schools are experimenting with single-sex education as a possible fix to academic pitfalls, the debate over which form of education is actually better for students is far from resolved.

Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, cited a study in his 2005 book, Why Gender Matters, conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech that demonstrated how boys are developmentally years behind girls in terms of fine motor skills. Many boys become frustrated with school when they are taught reading and writing before they are developmentally ready, causing them to lag behind girls, Sax said.

“The question, ‘Which is better, single sex or coeducation?’ presupposes that kids are all the same—they’re not,” he said. “What works best for some girls may be a disaster for other girls. What works best for some boys might not work for other boys.”

Sax said he believes that if single-sex education is the right choice for a particular child, that child should have the option to attend a public single-sex school rather than having to pay for private education.

“What if you think your child might benefit from the girls’ format or boys’ format, but you don’t have $20,000 a year to send your child to such a school?” he said. “Choice between single-sex and coed format is generally, in this country, only available to parents who have money.”

David Sadker, a professor at American University and author of Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls, said he doesn’t believe that separating the genders is the right idea.

“Separating is a backwards step, whether it’s by race, or gender, or religion,” said Sadker. “We’re doing something on gender that we’d never do on race; we’re separating and segregating, and we would never do that on race—and it’s because we’re more sensitive to the race implications than the gender [ones], but the gender implications are very real, and they’re not good.”

However, Sadker said he doesn’t believe the current education system is fair to female students.

“Teachers talk more to boys than girls, they praise boys more, they discipline boys more, they help boys more. Boys are by far the more active participants in a classroom, and this continues through college,” he said.

Rather than separating classes by gender, Sadker advocates a model that retrains teachers to ensure they’re addressing all students fairly.

“Often in a coed class, girls get cut off, they may worry about harassment, the boys may take over physically and verbally, but teachers can control that,” he said.

Yet Sax disagrees.

“This notion that girls are intimidated by boys in the coed classroom is certainly out of date in most American schools today. If anything, it is the other way around,” Sax said. “It is common to find what I call the ‘Hermione Granger syndrome’ in American schools today, where the girls are jumping up and down to answer the questions and the boys are sitting on their hands.”

Sax said many people have an antiquated idea of what single-sex education is actually like today.

“We’re not trying to recreate the 1950s,” he said. “We’re using this format to do things that have not been done before, like engaging more girls in computer science and getting more boys who love football to love Jane Eyre.”

In his book Girls on the Edge, Sax describes evidence from UCLA studies that suggest “girls who graduate from single-sex private schools do better academically when compared to girls with comparable demographics who graduate from comparable private schools.” He also examines a larger study from the United Kingdom that found similar results for girls in public schools.

Sax said parents often are concerned that their children won’t learn how to interact with the opposite sex if they aren’t exposed on a regular basis in an academic setting.

“It’s certainly the case that schools should help girls and boys to learn together, but does that necessarily require that every class be coed?” he said. “Well, maybe not. And I can give many examples of schools that have girls and boys working together on a wide range of activities, but in which some or occasionally most of the academic drill is single-sex.”

At Arthur F. Smith Middle Magnet School, Principal Norvella Williams said she faced some resistance from a few parents, who worried their children would lose in socialization skills. However, the cafeteria, schoolwide events, and some extracurricular activities remain coed.

“A lot of people are afraid of change, but if the change is going to be for the best, why not go for it?” she said.

While it’s too early into the year to measure academic gains, she and her staff report about half the discipline problems compared to the same time the previous year. That means the school is on the right track, Williams said.

Meanwhile, three seventh-grade students said they like learning in same-sex classrooms.

“I like it because you can be yourself. I feel closer to boys than I do girls … [and] sometimes boys try to impress them,” Danny Prenell said, prompting a nod from classmate Joshua Dorsey. Both 12-year-olds said they still get to talk to girls during recess.

In another classroom, 13-year-old Manahia Marzett said she wasn’t sure how the idea was going to work out, but now she’s getting used to it. “I am able to work better, instead of the boys talking about you and stuff like that,” she said.

Although Sax and Sadker disagree on the wisdom of single-sex education, both agree that educators must be aware of gender differences and stereotypes.

“If you ignore gender differences, they don’t go away. On the contrary, you end up reinforcing gender stereotypes,” Sax said.

“As soon as you make assumptions that all boys learn one way and all girls learn the other, you start building the ruts and reducing potential,” said Sadker.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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