Public schools offer single-gender classes

Monday, October 1, 2007
David Chadwell, South Carolina state coordinator of single-gender classes, worked with boys Sept. 6 at Dent Middle School in Columbia, S.C. (Mary Ann Chastain ~ Associated Press)

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- David Chadwell believes boys and girls can get through the awkward middle school years better when they're separated, learning in classrooms tailored to the learning styles of each gender.

As the country's first and only statewide coordinator of single-gender education, Chadwell is helping to make South Carolina a leader among public schools that offer such programs. About 70 schools offer the program now, and the goal is to have programs available to every child within five years, he said.

The theory is that by separating girls and boys -- especially during middle school years typically marked by burgeoning hormones, self doubt and peer pressure -- lessons can be more effective because they are in unique classroom settings.

For example, Chadwell explains, research shows boys don't hear as well as girls, so teachers of all-boys classes often use microphones. And because boys' attention spans tend to wander, incorporating movement in a lesson, like throwing a ball to a student when he's chosen to answer a question, can keep them focused.

Teachers in all-girls classes say they've learned to speak more softly, because their students can take yelling more personally than boys. And the educators gear their lessons to what students like: assigning action novels for boys to read or allowing girls to evaluate cosmetics for science projects.

"Boys like the activities. They like moving around. They like something dramatic," said Becky Smythe, who teaches all-boys and all-girls English and history at Hand Middle in Columbia, which launched single-gender classes this year in its sixth grade. The school plans to expand the program to seventh grade next year.

Chadwell, a Detroit native, had spent years in classrooms elsewhere, including teaching in a Quaker school outside Philadelphia and helping start a school in China, before he began teaching in South Carolina in 1999.

Five years later, aiming to create what he calls the "best middle school experience possible," Chadwell won permission from the state to launch South Carolina's first public, all-day single-sex program. Then came new state schools Superintendent Jim Rex's push to expand single-gender education to give parents more options within public schools, and Chadwell seemed perfect to head those efforts. He took the post in July.

"No other state has anyone remotely like David Chadwell," said Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education and the author of "Why Gender Matters." "It's such an advantage to have a knowledgeable person who's led the format himself in a public school saying 'This works and this doesn't work."'

"I'm hopeful we'll see more states following South Carolina's lead," Sax said.

Until last year, single-sex classes were allowed in only limited cases, such as gym classes and sex education classes. But the U.S. Education Department updated its rules and made it easier allow same-sex education any time schools think it will improve students' achievement, expand course diversity, or meet children's individual needs.

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