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Article of Interest - General Ed Reform

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Miami-Dade Schools May Split Genders
Matthew I. Pinzur, Miami Herald, September 15, 2005
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Kendall Couture 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.''

SOARING SUCCESS

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 group.

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 dollars.

IN FLORIDA

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 data.

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.''

SEGREGATION?

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 Russell.

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.

INCONCLUSIVE DATA

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 same-gender peers.

''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 stereotypes.

''`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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