School removes distraction - the opposite sex

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Without whispers, snickers or showboating, the class of eighth-grade boys rose one by one and promised to study hard and earn high marks this year.

It wouldn't have happened like that last year, before Southern Leadership Academy separated the entire school into boys' classes and girls' classes.

The idea is to keep students at the poor-performing public middle school focused on their books instead of flirting, fighting and note-passing to get the attention of the opposite sex.

"I think sometimes with the two genders together, they are so influenced by each other," said teacher Wilma K. Spencer. "They want to impress each other."

Southern is near the forefront of an initiative some advocates say could catch hold as the U.S. Department of Education drafts regulations that would make it easier for schools to offer gender-specific classes.

At Southern, from the day's first bell to the last, boys and girls will be cloistered in separate classrooms.

The lone exceptions are chorus and band, which will remain coed. Class times are staggered to avoid boys and girls mingling in the hallways. Some boys and girls eat lunch at the same time but aren't allowed to sit at the same tables.

Anita Jones, starting her second year as principal, said things had to change at the 820-student school, formerly known as Southern Middle School, which had become synonymous with low test scores and a high suspension rate.

The 75-year-old school is tucked into a working-class, racially mixed neighborhood in south Louisville.

Southern followed the lead of Paducah Middle School, which converted some classes to single-gender after the first nine weeks last school year.

Assistant Principal Richard Dowdy said he has noticed big changes at the Paducah school, about 225 miles west of Louisville.

A year ago, when classrooms still had a mix of boys and girls, 25 students were sent to the office for misconduct in the first three days of school, he said. The total this year dipped to four. Dowdy said the separation has created "ultimate peace in the hallways."

Nationally, about 15 public schools have same-sex-only classrooms or are exclusively boys- or girls-only schools, said Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist and physician who heads the Maryland-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Another 40 to 50 schools offer single-sex classes but don't require them, he said.

Sax predicted the numbers will grow once new federal regulations are written to alter the legal cloud hanging over schools offering single-sex classrooms.

That cloud has been Title IX, the law forbidding public schools from discriminating against any student on the basis of sex.

Still, gender-exclusive classes have sprung up in a few districts that offered separate and essentially equal schools for boys and girls.

The U.S. Education Department is drafting new regulations for Title IX to give school districts the flexibility to offer single-gender classrooms, programs or schools.

The Bush administration has also signaled its willingness to help. The education bill signed by President Bush in January said school districts could receive federal funding for single-sex schools and classes if boys and girls have access to comparable coursework and facilities.

Nancy Zirkin, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women, said the changes would undermine Title IX and would have deeper consequences.

"Our concern is that separate is never equal," she said. "We would never accept this in a race context. Why in the world are we doing this in a gender context?"

The National Education Association has also expressed opposition. In a letter to the department, the NEA said single-sex public education would elevate the "discredited doctrine of 'separate but equal' to official government policy," would promote "harmful and false sex stereotypes" and leave students ill prepared for the "real world."

At Southern Leadership Academy, some students were also skeptical at first, but many have come around.

"We won't be embarrassed to stand up in front of the class and do a report," said seventh-grader Ebonee Herd. "And we don't have to look all pretty-pretty."

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