West Virginia school experiments with same-sex classes

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thirteen-year-old Virginia Marker was always the kind of student who wanted to get lost in the crowd, hoping teachers wouldn't call on her.

That was until this year when Stonewall Jackson Middle School decided to separate its 610 boys and girls into single-sex classes for part of the day. Only weeks into the one-year experiment, Marker has improved her D average in math to a C.

"Having an all-girls class is pretty cool because you can do things without the boys there to pick on you," she said. "I feel like I can ask questions without getting embarrassed."

Stonewall Jackson is the first public school in West Virginia to segregate students by gender in grades six through eight for classes in English, math, science and social studies. Other courses, including art, physical education and band, are mixed.

Single-sex education is not a new idea, but principal Carol Thom decided to give it a try after two years of effort to improve student achievement left Stonewall Jackson still one of 38 low-performing schools in West Virginia. Teachers jumped at the idea, and state and county officials did not object.

"This is hormone city," Thom said. "Middle school kids are very focused on what each other thinks of each other. When you take that sexual tension out of the classroom, then they focus on academics."

Stonewall Jackson is among at least 147 out of the nation's 91,000 public schools opting for single-sex classes this year as administrators look for ways to improve student performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education in Poolesville, Md.

Supporters say separation reduces distractions and classroom inhibitions. It also allows teachers to cater to different learning styles. Girls, they say, often want to break into small work groups while boys tend to engage more in debate.

"They really do learn differently," said Amy Aston, a math teacher at Stonewall. "And when you get them in separate classes you really start to pick up on what works better for the different genders."

Stonewall Jackson is located in a racially mixed area on Charleston's west side. About 70 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Two years ago, only 46 percent of the students met standards in reading, while only 51 percent met standards in math. Last year, reading competency jumped to 81 percent and math to nearly 59 percent.

"Last year sometimes I had a hard time because most of the other people were messing with the girls and the teacher had to tell them to stop," said 12-year-old Michael Brewington. "People listen more because they can't flirt with the girls anymore."

While same-sex education has long been available in private schools, it has been virtually unknown in public schools since the 1972 implementation of Title IX, a federal rule prohibiting discrimination based on gender. Title IX discouraged single-sex schooling, although a handful of schools met the law with a "separate but equal" setup.

That changed when President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in 2001. It allows single-sex classrooms if comparable curricula and facilities are available to both sexes.

The U.S. Department of Education took public comments on the changes earlier this year but has yet to update the regulations, leaving schools that want to trying single-sex education in legal limbo.

The move to water down Title IX has drawn criticism from groups such as the National Organization for Women and the American Association of University Women, which argue that segregated classes open the door for unequal treatment, promote gender stereotypes and fail to prepare students for life.

In its 1998 report, "Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls," the AAUW found there was "no evidence that single-sex education is better than coeducation."

"Single-sex education is not doing students any favors," said Jean-Marie Mavetta, a spokeswoman for the AAUW in Washington. "If we've learned anything it's that you can't have separate and equal."

In the new book "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs," Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers say it is teacher quality and higher expectations that make a difference in the classroom, not gender separation.

"Teaching styles that emphasize different tactics for boys and girls are more often rooted in stereotypes than research or hard science and can lead to a poorer-quality education for girls," the authors conclude.

Supporters of single-sex education, however, are quick to disagree.

Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist and physician who heads the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, points to Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle, where in 2000 the school adopted single-sex classrooms.

Discipline referrals dropped from about 30 a day to just one. Standardized test scores among boys went from being as low as 10 percent to about 73 percent.

"Single-sex education really empowers girls and boys from very diverse backgrounds to achieve," Sax said.

While it's too soon to know what effect single-sex classes will have at Stonewall, educators and students hope for positive results when standardized tests are administered next spring.

"We can't save them from all the hard lessons of life," Thom said, "but I believe this is one way we can help them get through it better."

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