Schools May Split Genders
Matthew I. Pinzur, Miami Herald, September 15, 2005
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came home one day and said she never wanted to return to school.
Her boyfriend, Liam, had told her his true love was a classmate
named Abby, and she could not stand the thought of sharing a
classroom with them.
She was 4 years old.
'My husband said, `I thought I'd have to deal with that in
junior high at the least, not preschool,' '' recalled Kendall's
mother, Kathy Piechura-Couture.
The next year, she enrolled Kendall in an all-girls kindergarten
at Woodward Avenue Elementary near their home in DeLand, the
only public elementary in Florida to offer single-gender
classes. Something similar could be in the works in Miami-Dade
County, where superintendent Rudy Crew wants to bring the
concept to grades 7 through 12.
''There is a need for some protection,'' said the school's
principal, Jo Anne Rodkey. ``These kids grow up so fast.''
When the single-gender classes began last year -- voluntary for
both students and teachers -- the results were jarring. In co-ed
fourth-grade classes, 33 percent of boys and 59 percent of girls
passed the state's standardized writing test. In the
single-gender classes, those figures jumped to 86 percent for
boys and 75 percent for girls.
Likewise, in kindergarten and second grade -- not enough
teachers volunteered to staff single-gender classes for other
grades -- boys and girls both did better on standardized tests
than their peers in co-ed groups.
''I knew there would be some differences, but it was just
dramatic,'' said Karen Medlin, an 18-year veteran of Volusia
County schools, who teaches all-girls kindergarten.
Still, even the educators who created the Woodward program warn
against overreacting to the results. There were far too few
children to constitute a reliable study, and Woodward uses other
unconventional programs that might explain the scores.
Nonetheless, results like those in DeLand are driving more
public schools to embrace the model, which has long been
accepted in private and parochial schools.
Just eight years ago, only four public schools across the
country had any singlegender classes, according to the National
Association for Single Sex Public Education, a Maryland-based
The group now lists nearly 200 public schools in the country,
most of which are co-ed schools with some single-gender classes.
Part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act encourages further
experiments by allowing districts to fund them with federal
A few public secondary schools in Florida, including two middle
schools in Palm Beach County and South Plantation High in
Broward, offer some single-gender classes.
Now Crew wants to create the first completely single-sex public
schools in Florida, magnet schools that would house grades 7
through 12 and could open as soon as 2007.
''You will be able to see young people focused on their
day-to-day work and the concept of where they're going with
their life,'' Crew said. ``We might be able to maximize their
human potential if we begin to eliminate these distractions.''
The words ''might,'' ''could'' and ''maybe'' are the basic
vocabulary of single-gender education: studies are rare,
unreliable and often based on overseas or private schools that
form poor models for urban education in the U.S.
The school in Volusia County is a perfect example of imperfect
All the teachers and students -- or at least their parents --
volunteered for the program. Education experts widely agree that
people who seek out alternative programs are inherently more
interested in schooling and therefore more likely to succeed,
even in a regular program. The same problem makes magnet
programs and charter schools hard to reliably examine.
The data were even muddier because some single-gender classes
and some co-ed classes were part of another experiment by Rodkey,
the principal, in which the school day was extended by an hour.
''In education, there are so many variables,'' said Doug
MacIsaac, one of the Stetson professors who works with Woodward
Avenue. ``You can't say one is the be-all and end-all.''
In the absence of compelling data, opponents of single-gender
schools said both law and morality require public schools to
remain co-ed. Many compare the programs to racial segregation,
arguing they should be struck down for the same reasons.
''Segregation is inherently damaging,'' said Kim Gandy,
president of the National Organization for Women, which has
written extensively against single-gender public schools.
``[Former U.S. Supreme Court] Chief Justice [Earl] Warren said,
`We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine
of separate-but-equal has no place.''
Ultimately, she said, girls' schools end up with fewer
resources, especially in math and science. She also worried
about the broader message of single-gender schools.
''It sends a signal that whoever's being removed is the
problem,'' Gandy said. ``Boys get the idea girls are the
problem. Girls are getting the idea boys are the problem.''
When they reach college or the workforce, men and women are
required to work together. School, Gandy said, is where those
relationships should be learned.
Both Crew and Rodkey said children have ample exposure to the
other gender outside of school. They said learning is harder
when boys worry about winning girls' attention and girls fret
about looking ``too smart.''
Almost without exception, kids in single-gender classes at
Woodward said they were much happier.
''Boys always throw stuff at girls,'' said 8-year-old Rachel
Her all-girls second-grade class buzzes with the quiet
conversation of a cocktail party, while the boys' class across
the hall explodes with energy.
Brain studies have found profound differences in the way typical
boys and girls learn, especially in elementary school. Boys are
more likely to learn with hands-on lessons, and they need
simpler directions and more physical activity. Girls are more
willing to absorb longer lessons and are more eager to read and
write short stories at young ages.
Those differences can impede learning when boys are girls are
together -- the boys get restless during long lessons, the girls
get frustrated with shorter, quick-hit lessons.
''With the boys, every single thing was a competition: who could
say the pledge fastest, who could sit down first, whose pencil
is longest,'' said Medlin, the kindergarten teacher, whose first
all-girls class was reading well into first-grade level by the
end of last school year.
The model, though, is imperfect. The Stetson professors, who
compiled all the research they could find on brain development
and single-gender education, estimated that only about 75
percent of children learn most effectively like their
''It's not really for every kid,'' said Piechura-Couture,
Kendall's mother, who is also a Stetson education professor.
Crew also believes single-gender schools help quiet the
incessant noise that shapes the way children see themselves,
physically and emotionally. At a single-gender school, he said,
teens would be less worried about their image and appearance and
less vulnerable to media signals that reinforce gender
''`Girls are not good at in math; girls are not good in
science,''' Crew said. ``Everything from Barbie dolls to TV
commercials send those messages.''
With her own daughters, however, Gandy said the most powerful
messages come not from boys, but from other girls.
''I am sometimes horrified with what they come home with, but
they get it as much from television and the neighbor kids as
from school,'' she said.
Indeed, many of the Woodward Avenue teachers said the boys have
no idea how often they are claimed as boyfriends by the girls
across the hall. They all play together at recess, eat lunch
together and share classes like art and music.
Second-grader Emily Delk said that gives them more than enough
time together. The 8-year-old said she has a ''boy toy,'' but is
happy not to have him in her class.
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