Proposed federal regulations pave the way for single-sex classrooms

By Lois K. Solomon
Education Writer, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted March 4 2004


More public-school students may find themselves in all-boy or all-girl classes in the coming years, as federal officials work to ease the restrictions on same-sex education.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday that it is changing its rules regarding gender-specific education -- action that would amend Title IX, the landmark 1975 anti-discrimination law that prohibited gender-segregated education.

Federal regulations require students of both genders to have the same opportunities in public schools. If a school offers an all-boy math class, for example, girls would need their own class, too.

But the department's rule change would allow schools to offer single-sex classes in scholastic subjects without having to offer separate but identical settings for both boys and girls. It also would make it easier for school districts to open entire gender-segregated schools.

"Our goal was to provide more flexibility so parents and schools have more options in educating their kids," Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said.

Odyssey Middle School in Boynton Beach, one of two Florida public schools experimenting with single-sex education this school year, has about 270 of its 1,200 students in boys-only or girls-only social studies, math, science and English courses. Teachers already report improved behavior and better attitudes among participating students.

School administrators believe separated students are performing better academically, although the true test will come when scores are released in coming months for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is being taken this week.

"There has not been a whole lot of difference in report-card grades," said Principal Bonnie Fox. "But we are seeing more discussion, more willingness to take chances and a lessening of classroom disruptions in those classes."

Two teachers at South Plantation High School in Broward County, who volunteered to lead 11 single-sex classes there last year, came away believers.

Donna Capparelli found her students, once freed from having to deal with the opposite sex, asked more questions and shared deeper feelings in class discussions. "It was wonderful ... Girls would open up and share what went on behind closed doors at home, " Capparelli said.

By the end of the 2002-03 school year, South Plantation's FCAT reading scores had jumped 14 points -- a 300 percent increase from the year before.

The recent move toward single-sex education, applauded by the Bush administration and female senators, came out of the 2002 No Child Left Behind education-reform act. It contended that public schools should have the same freedom as private schools to separate the sexes -- so long as the resources were equal.

The proposed changes would allow single-sex classes in most subjects, with participation being voluntary. Within a co-ed school, co-ed courses must be offered alongside gender-specific classes. Students in a neighborhood served by a single-sex school would have to have easy access to a co-ed campus.

The changes would not go into effect immediately, but would be open for public comment for 45 days. Education officials expect the final draft to be ready within several months. A copy of the proposal can be seen at: www.ed.gov/ news/ pressreleases/ 2004/03/ 03032004- single-nprm.doc.

More than 80 public schools across the country are experimenting with same-sex classrooms, which is triple the number from two years ago, said Leonard Sax, director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, based in Maryland.

He said educators are responding to a growing gap between the performance of boys and girls in classrooms. Girls do better than boys in language tests, Advanced Placement participation and honors courses, according to The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

There is little research proving if single-sex education helps or hinders students, but feelings are strong on both sides.

Proponents say attendance, discipline and test scores improve in same-sex classes, especially for boys and minorities. But the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the divide, warning it could lead to one gender or the other receiving an inferior education -- exactly what Title IX was created to prevent.

Broward Superintendent Frank Till is not against single-sex education but says it could keep children from learning how to deal with the opposite sex. "And you have to be careful not to perpetuate stereotyping boys and girls in academics: Boys can't read as well as girls and girls can't learn math," Till said.

Information from The Associated Press supplemented this report. Staff Writer Bill Hirschman contributed to this report.

Lois Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6536.
Copyright 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel