School forges new path
Jacksonville first in state to separate sexes
BY CYNTHIA HOWELL
Middle school boys learn best when the room temperature is 69 degrees and they can stand up and move around.
They respond well to loud voices, even to some confrontation. They thrive on team competition and stories of adventure and enchantment. They donít mind time limits.
But, for goodness sakes, donít ask them how a reading passage makes them feel, nor weigh them down with the life story of Pythagoras when teaching the Pythagorean theorem. Just get to the numbers.
Girls, on the other hand, do their best in warmer rooms of 75 degrees.
Comfortable seating, gentle tones from a friendly teacher and instruction that first of all makes a lesson relevant ó the real-life application of a mathematical calculation or a description of life in the antebellum south ó help girls absorb the math formulas or the politics of the Civil War.
That is some of the advice that Dr. Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, shared last week with 75 Pulaski County Special School District teachers who will be Arkansasí pioneers in operating largely separate public school campuses for girls and boys.
When classes for the 2005-06 school year begin Friday for most of the stateís 450,000 public school students, Jacksonville Middle School will be the only public school in the state sending sixth- through eighth-grade girls to core academic courses in one building and boys to core academic courses in the building next door.
Itís an idea whose time has come, said Sax, a family physician in Maryland and a research psychologist. He is the author of the newly published Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences.
Sax said there are "hardwired differences" in how boys and girls develop and learn.
"Not one is better or worse than the other," Sax told the teachers. "Differences donít imply an order of rank. You just need to know what the differences are. A knife is not better than a spoon. But if you try to use a knife for a spoon or a spoon as if it is a knife, you are going to get frustrated."
Sax cited research showing that girls have more sensitive hearing than boys, and a teacher speaking in a loud voice will be perceived by girls as shouting. Boys will tend to disregard those who speak in softer tones.
Vision presents other differences. The eyes of girls are rich in cells found to be sensitive to subtle changes in color and texture, he said, while cells in the male eye make the boys alert to movement.
The sequence of development in the regions of the brain also differs between girls and boys, Sax said, more so than in adult males and females.
For girls, that likely means a delayed grasp of math concepts when compared to boys.
In a coed school, a 12-yearold girl may have decided long ago that she is no good at math while in single-sex schools girls love math and interrupt each other to answer questions, he said. In coed schools, girls rarely interrupt classroom discussions even when they know the answers.
By age 12, 90 percent of 12-year-olds who excel in art are girls, he added. Not surprisingly, many of the worldís premier male artists ó Michelangelo and Renoir among them ó attended all-boys schools.
Jacksonville Middle School, now considered one school with two campuses for nearly 1,000 students, will join only about 180 such single-sex schools in the nation this year. Thatís up from fewer than a dozen in 2002.
The separate campuses for boys and girls developed after city leaders tried unsuccessfully in 2003 to form a Jacksonville school district. After the federal court rejected plans for a Jacksonville district, separate campuses were proposed by the county district and city leaders as a way to distinguish and enhance the cityís schools.
A series of community hearings and a parent survey were conducted last spring on the proposal to gauge and build support for the reorganized schools. Additionally, the ninth grade once housed in Jacksonville Junior High was moved to the Jacksonville High School campus, leaving two schools located side by side available for the separate-sex middle school campuses.
While students will be assigned to separate classes for the core academics ó elective courses such as music, foreign language and physical education will be coed.
Sax said the hybrid nature of the Jacksonville plan is unfortunate but still a reasonable start. He envisions that the campuses will evolve into totally separate operations in subsequent years.
Deborah Bruick, the county districtís director of secondary education, said Friday that the purpose of the separation is to improve student achievement and behavior.
"We hope we can provide a more individualized instruction to students based on their sex," she said. "And being a [former] middle school principal myself, I know discipline will improve."
Michael Nellums, principal of the boysí campus, has looked at the reality of his student body. Seventy-five percent of suspensions in the district are levied against middle school boys and now a good many of those boys will be grouped in one building, he said. And only about 20 percent of the districtís middle school boys are scoring at their appropriate grade levels on state exams.
"I think we have an uphill climb," Nellums said. "The district has created an extra challenge for us. We hope we can pool our resources together and meet the needs of the students. We want to take into consideration some of the things that Dr. Sax talked about that research has proven to be correct."
Kim Crook, the parent of a seventh-grader at Jacksonville Middle School, said her son is looking forward to the start of the school year and hasnít complained about the organizational changes.
"And Iím looking forward to trying something new and hoping that it will be good educationally for my child," she said.
"There is always opportunity for improving what you have. I agree there may be learning differences between boys and girls. I think there is something positive that can be brought out by teaching males and females differently."
Sharri Matney said last week that she was excited about the prospects of teaching eighthgrade math and science at the boysí campus and having her school serve as a model for the state.
"I am thinking about getting the boys out of their chairs more and getting them active," Matney said.
"In science that will be pretty easy because you can do experiments. Iím going to have to find a way to integrate that into math, but I think I can. There are some games ó physical games ó where we can practice math skills. I donít know how good Iíll be at getting up in their faces, though. Iím a pretty small person and most eighth-graders are bigger than me!"
Belynda Ford, a teacher of 31 years, said the information from Sax was beneficial.
"Weíve seen the differences in the students over time, but we didnít know the facts behind it," Ford said, confirming that boys do like colder temperatures and standing around and they donít mind distracting behavior from others such as incessant tapping on desks.
"If we had known this years ago, we could have been teaching in the classroom to both boys and girls in the ways that they needed to be taught," she said.
Until recently, public schools separated by sex were mostly illegal.
For more than 30 years public schools that accepted federal funds were barred from operating single-sex classes or schools by Title IX of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1972.
But in March 2004 the rules changed. In compliance with provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the U.S. Department of Education issued new regulations permitting single-sex schools and classrooms.
Sax credited Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat from New York and a former Arkansas first lady, for helping to end the logjam between Democrats and Republicans over single-sex schools.
"We donít want to go back to the bad old days of boys going to woodworking classes and girls going to home economics," Sax said about his advocacy for the separate schools.
"Back then, single-sex education was used to reinforce gender stereotypes. Now we are about using single-sex education to break down stereotypes. We are using it to get girls more excited about math and computer science, and to get boys excited about art, music and foreign languages. Boys and girls learn differently. Letís use those differences to broaden educational horizons."
This story was published Sunday, August 14, 2005