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Article of Interest - Education

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Bridges4Kids LogoCamden Class Gladly Lets Boys be Boys Together
by Melanie Burney, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 22, 2004
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In the 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 single-sex classes.

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 class.)

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 national levels.

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 said.

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 households.

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 near whisper.

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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