Class Gladly Lets Boys be Boys Together
by Melanie Burney, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 22, 2004
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beginning, most sixth graders in Ben White's class were appalled
at the prospect: a class without girls.
But, for the last year, they have adjusted to spending most of
the school day at Hatch Middle School in Camden's Parkside
section with only passing interaction with the opposite sex.
"I would have liked it better if it was some girls," said Nigee
Battie, 11. "But I got used to it."
The boys remain in one classroom for core subjects: reading,
math, science and social studies. At lunch, they eat at an
assigned table in the cafeteria.
"It's good for me. It keeps me focused more," said Mariq Ernest,
12. "I'm proud to be in this class."
Camden is believed to be the only public school district in New
Jersey, and one of only a handful in the region, to offer
Across the country, 97 public schools offer some form of
same-sex education, according to the National Association for
Single Sex Public Education.
Philadelphia's FitzSimons and Pepper Middle Schools have
single-sex classes, and its Rhodes Middle will become an
all-boys academy in the fall. Philadelphia Girls High School,
with 1,500 students, is the largest and second-oldest same-sex
public school in the country.
While all-girls classes are traditionally more common, all-boys
classes are becoming more popular, especially in urban areas.
Proponents believe single-sex classes provide a better learning
environment for boys and girls, who develop at different rates
and learn differently.
"Single-sex schools expand educational opportunities. It lets
kids find out who they are," said Leonard Sax, executive
director of the Single Sex Public Education group. "The coed
school will always inevitably replay the same sexist stereotypes
that we have in the culture."
Critics, however, contend there is little evidence that
single-sex classes dramatically improve education. They say the
classes undermine civil-rights protections under Title IX, which
bans sex discrimination in publicly-funded education.
"We don't think it's appropriate for public schools to close
doors to an opportunity for one gender based on an idea of how
the average boy or girl learns," said Emily Martin, a staff
lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights
Project. "When you have a single-sex classroom, you're locking
out members of the opposite sex who might really benefit from
what is going on in that class."
Hatch launched single-sex classes during the 1996-97 school
year, but halted them several years later after legal concerns
were raised. They resumed this school year under provisions in
the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Even more sex-separate classes and single-sex public schools
could be added nationwide under Title IX changes proposed in
March by the U.S. Department of Education. If they are approved,
districts will no longer have to provide comparable single-sex
classes for each sex. (Hatch also has an all-girls sixth-grade
Camden's all-boys class was modeled after an early-intervention
program started in 1988 in Washington, D.C., public schools by
school psychologist Holland Spencer to boost the academic
performance of black males in the critical middle school years,
where many often feel isolated. Known as Project 2000, it
provided positive male role models as teaching assistants.
The students improved academically, performing at or above
Camden's pilot program provides a structured environment to a
population deemed most at-risk in the city's failing school
system: black and Latino males, who are more likely than females
to drop out, statistics show. It is an effort to focus their
attention on academics at a time when the onset of puberty and
tumultuous hormones can distract them.
"We recognized that their learning styles are different," said
the school's former principal, Jan Gillespie-Walton, now an
assistant superintendent. "It's meeting the challenges that they
bring with them every day."
Although final test results were not yet available, about a
third of the class were expected to land on the honor roll, and
most will likely be promoted to seventh grade when the school
year ends tomorrow.
At an awards luncheon last week, they were treated to ice cream
and cookies to celebrate their progress. They also got prizes
and small monetary gifts from White, ranging from 50 cents for a
good attitude to $2 for honor roll.
"It's rare to reward boys. They're always being punished," White
Academic achievement has been less than stellar for most of the
500 sixth-through-eighth-graders at Hatch. Only 20 percent of
its eighth graders met proficiency standards on the state's math
test in 2002-03, and only 29 percent met science standards.
White, a Camden native who has taught for nearly three decades
in the city's schools, was assigned 30 boys in September. They
were chosen at random or at the request of their parents.
He calls his class "Boyz in 2 Men," and in many ways it
resembles a rite of passage as the boys mature and grow
academically and socially. It provides a rare opportunity for
male bonding and mentoring.
"We're boys now. While he's teaching us, we're going to become
men and learn new things," said Syteek Farrington, 12.
The classroom is scattered with posters, some with rap artists,
others with inspirational messages such as "My life is destined
to be filled with positivity."
Beyond the core subjects, the boys take health, gym, art,
Spanish and library classes.
Last fall, White took the class to Lincoln University in Chester
County, one of the country's oldest historically-black colleges.
Ten boys were picked to accompany White this month on a four-day
tour to Morehouse College and Clark-Atlanta University.
"I constantly tell them you're expected to go to college," said
White, who views himself as a teacher, mentor and father figure.
About two-thirds of his class are being raised in single-parent
White usually refers to his students as "men." He doles out
compassion as generously as he imposes discipline when needed.
"What did the doctor say about your arm, son?" he gently asked a
boy who had a cast on his arm.
"Fix yourself up like a man," White told another student, whose
clothes were disheveled.
Every Friday, the boys get a chance to speak candidly with a
sex-education counselor who visits their classroom.
"When you're around all boys, you can say anything you want,"
said Battie, an honors student.
The boys' easy camaraderie continues outside school. When a
classmate stumbles while reading aloud, another helps him
pronounce the word.
At times, the boys behaved like typical young males. They rolled
up their T-shirts, flexing their arms and comparing muscles.
When two older girls stopped by the class to visit White, some
of the boys snickered and clamored for their attention.
"Sometimes it gets boring just sitting there with all boys,"
said Ernest. "It seems like I need girls in the classroom."
His mother, Gerri Bailey, a fifth-grade teacher at Forest Hill
Elementary in Camden, said the experience had made a difference.
"He has become a much more positive young man."
In White's class, the boys begin each day by reading silently
from assigned books for 15 minutes. White buys books that
feature positive black or Hispanic male role models.
White sets the tone by reading aloud first. He draws on his
theater training, walking between the desk rows, gesturing
dramatically, his voice rising to a crescendo and dropping to a
On a recent morning, the class pulled out Brothers in Arms, a
hip-hop paperback about a Latino teen struggling with the
gang-related death of his younger brother. Several boys were
called to read aloud from the "office chair," a metal stool in
the front of the class.
Between readings, the class took a brief break - to have
breakfast, paid for by White. The boys consume four boxes of
cereal and 11/2 gallons of milk daily.
When milk prices drastically rose recently, White began charging
the boys 15 cents a day. The school serves free breakfast, but
some boys are reluctant to accept it in front of girls.
The boys said they would miss that special treatment when they
returned to coed classes in the fall.
Ernest said he was looking forward to seventh grade, "but I'm
going to miss Mr. White. He treats us like we're his children."
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