Hands up, mischief down: Single-sex classes flourish

By Nirvi Shah
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Palm Beach Post, Sunday, January 02, 2005, pp. A1, A6.

After just a semester of teaching only boys in one math class and only girls in another, Odyssey Middle School teacher Heidi Putré made a discovery.

"Girls want to discuss everything," she said.

Her male students, on the other hand, just want to know the answer — no discussion necessary.

About half the boys and girls at the suburban Boynton Beach school — some each in sixth, seventh and eighth grades — spend their academic classes with their same gender as part of a second-year experiment to get them to concentrate on learning instead of popularity and flirting.

The experiment is a first in Palm Beach County public schools.

"I have kids that are on the honor roll for the first time ever," Odyssey Principal Bonnie Fox said.

Fox took a chance on the idea after one of her guidance coordinators saw a segment on 60 Minutes. She was open to anything that would help her students, especially those struggling the most, so she shrank the size of their classes and separated boys and girls.

Although Odyssey and a middle school in Orlando were the first in the state to test the concept, at least three other schools, in Broward and Duval counties, have joined the experiment. Nationwide, at least 149 public schools are trying similar programs and 34 have only boys or girls.

Fewer discipline problems and different learning styles are driving the trend, and with time, educators think that will result in better test scores.

Fox expected parental backlash but instead got calls from parents asking that their children be included. Only one parent insisted on having her child in typical classes.

At the end of the last school year, Fox surveyed the 200 students who had single-gender classes, then decided to triple the program to 600 or more students this year.

All of the seventh-grade girls in the program last year said they accomplished more when they were surrounded by other girls. Ninety-four percent of all girls said they felt more comfortable participating when they were in girls-only classes.

Although boys were less enthusiastic about the separation, about three-fourths said their grades were better.

That convinced Fox. The students take language arts, math, science and social studies with peers of the same sex. They take electives in mixed classes. In every grade, every subject also is taught in a mixed class, in case a parent does not want his or her child in single-gender classes.

For the second year, though, there have been few complaints.

If Kelly Zimmer's sixth-grade all-girl math class is an indication, it's no wonder.

Nearly every hand shoots up when she asks a question. Zimmer zips through lessons with the girls paying close attention. There is little to distract them.

"If there are boys in the class, some girls won't be able to concentrate because they'll be flirting," sixth-grader Morgan Chinahsang said.

"Girls aren't that good all the time," classmate Brenda Michel countered.

"But the boys tend to fool around more," Caitlyn Yarber said.

Yarber went to the overhead projector to plot a point on a graph. Although she made a mistake, she shrugged it off and tried again. The class didn't laugh or shout out Caitlyn's mistake, and Zimmer didn't have to calm the group.

"Academic distractions decrease instructional time," said John Gattozzi, a guidance coordinator at Odyssey who suggested separating students after seeing the 60 Minutes report. "When you add that up over the course of a year, it's a lot."

Advocates of single-gender education say eliminating distractions is only one reason to separate the sexes.

Boys and girls are programmed to learn differently, said Dr. Leonard Sax, a family practitioner and psychologist who heads the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

Boys respond better to formal, structured learning environments, Sax said, while girls want to be friends with the teacher. Even more basic: Boys' hearing isn't as sharp as girls' hearing. Teachers sometimes think boys have attention deficit disorder because they are looking out a window. But they simply can't hear as well, Sax said, so their minds wander.

It would be impossible for one teacher to speak loudly enough for the boys and softly enough for the girls in the same classroom, he said. His solution is separate classes — or, better yet, separate schools.

Another advantage, Sax said, is that students are more likely to find out their own identities in separate settings. Boys might play the flute in band class and girls might play the drums. Girls might be more inclined to take a computer science class if lots of other girls were enrolled.

Last year, he said, 90 percent of students who took the Advanced Placement computer science exam nationwide were boys.

Odyssey is still in the earliest stages of its experiment with gender separation. Teachers haven't received special training, Fox said, but they are trying to figure out what engages their kids through trial and error.

On a recent morning, the girls in Matt Ostendorf's class sat quietly, pondering essays about important decisions they have made in their lives.

Next door in Chad McBane's all-male class, boys were shuffling, working on computers, sitting at their desks, looking in their backpacks. But they weren't busy trying to impress girls.

Fox said it has been difficult for some teachers to handle a classroom full of active boys. And some boys say they might behave better if girls were in their classes. Only 35 percent of boys in separated classes last year said the school should enlarge the program.

"We won't talk as much. There wouldn't be as many boys to talk to," sixth-grader Justin Stevenson said.

"We wouldn't have as much to talk about," Michael Bohl said.

Despite some boys' objections, Fox plans on sticking with the separation, at least for a while.

Proposed changes to federal rules could make the option more popular in the future. Four female U.S. senators proposed allowing single-sex classes within coed schools in 2002. Federal rules allow single-sex schools but prohibit single-sex classes at regular public schools, although that has not been enforced.

Critics, including the National Organization for Women, fear the option could end up undoing other federal rules that protect equal education rights for men and women. Single-sex-class advocates argue their ideas hinge on those protections. Separating students, they say, means a better education for everyone.

But that doesn't mean it's good for everyone. The senators' intent was merely to provide school districts with another way to reach their students, including those at Odyssey Middle.

"Nothing's perfect," Fox said. "But overall, I think we may have something here."


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