Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Public high school tries single-gender classes

So far, fewer discipline problems, more participation

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

One of Cincinnati Public's underachieving high schools has taken a page from its high-performing private school counterparts to improve student achievement.Classes are divided by sex.

The controversial experiment launched by Withrow University High School this fall is the boldest of its type in the Tristate.

The 200-student Hyde Park school is also one of just 16 public schools in the nation known to conduct boys-only and girls-only classes schoolwide. Just two other public schools in the Tristate incorporate it in some classrooms.

  Experts disagree on the merits of single-sex education in public schools.
  Supporters say the schools:
• Reduce distractions of the opposite sex, forcing students to concentrate on learning.
• Allow students to explore their strengths instead of being constrained by gender stereotypes.
• Reduce discipline problems caused by students trying to "impress" the opposite sex.
  Detractors say the schools:
• Reinforce gender stereotypes.
• Aren't backed by definitive evidence that single-sex education improves student achievement.
• Aren't a panacea for the ills of public education.
WCPO Video - Includes comments from Withrow's principal
"Separating the classes by gender allows the boys not to worry about the girls," says William Sprankles, an English teacher at the school, one of three small schools on Withrow High School's campus. "They can focus on class. They don't have to worry about anything but me, them and their education."

It's too soon to say whether the experiment will pay off in better grades or graduation rates. But so far, teachers report there are fewer discipline problems and students are less intimidated about answering questions.

Principal Sharon Johnson said grades will be analyzed now that the first quarter has ended to determine whether single-sex classes are helping raise student achievement.

A more comprehensive look at state achievement tests, discipline and grades will be conducted at year's end.

Educators have been fearful to try single-sex classrooms since 1972, when Congress passed Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in any educational programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.

But in a dramatic policy shift, President Bush's administration this year signaled openness to the creation of non-discriminatory, single-sex schools in the landmark federal education bill he signed in Hamilton in January.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige said he intends to issue new regulations for Title IX.

Despite opposition by some national women's groups who say single-sex education reinforces gender stereotypes, some local educators believe that separating girls and boys dramatically reduces learning barriers.

Cheryl Sucher, principal of the private all-girls McAuley High School in College Hill, said single-sex education contributes to the 32-year-old school's record of sending 96 percent of its students on to post-secondary education.

In 2000, McAuley was named a National Blue Ribbon School, a prestigious award given to excellent schools by the U.S. Department of Education.

"Research has shown when you have a coed situation, certain classes seem to be dominated by boys," Ms. Sucher said. "In a single-sex situation, girls are expected to excel. And the attention is strictly on academics."

Supporters say such education reduces distractions of the opposite sex, forcing students to concentrate on learning, and allows students to explore their strengths instead of being constrained by gender stereotypes. (For example, boys shouldn't be interested in theater or girls aren't as proficient in science.)

Detractors say there's no definitive evidence single-sex public education improves student achievement.

There are 16 single-sex public schools, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. The association, located in Maryland, is the only organization that tracks the phenomenon.

"Single-sex classrooms are much harder to track," said Dr. Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education.

"Because single-sex classrooms in coed public schools (have been) specifically prohibited under current Title IX regulations, many such programs operate `under cover.' They don't have Web pages, they don't talk about what they're doing, they don't want any publicity."

Dr. Sax said more programs will likely be publicized after the U.S. Department of Education issues new guidance for implementing Title IX.

Elsewhere in the Tristate, Parham Elementary in Evanston and Two Rivers Middle School in the Covington Independent School District separate girls and boys in some classes.

Two Rivers launched single-sex education last year as a three-week pilot program for 300 sixth-graders. Today all 660 sixth- and seventh-graders have some classes separated by gender.

Parham began dividing the sexes at the junior high level two years ago with about 80 students.

All three schools say they are in compliance with Title IX because they offer the girls and boys the same education - just in different classrooms.

Whatever it takes

University School's Ms. Johnson said her chief concern is to help children succeed academically in a 42,000-student district where just three of five students graduate.

She said separating boys and girls, most of whom are African-American, is an important component of a school whose mission is to send every student to college.

"We have noticed that students focus better in class," Ms. Johnson said. "It takes the pressure off the children. By pressure, I mean that hormonal piece. It has really eliminated the pressure of who likes who. And the parents really like this."

Kennedy Heights resident Richard Coffey, whose 14-year-old son, David, attends the school, said he favors single-sex classrooms.

"It minimizes distractions," Mr. Coffey said. "At those teen-age years, the opposite sex has attraction. If you curtail those distractions in the classroom setting, you focus more time and energy on class work."

Girls and boys take the same classes with the same teachers but have the classes at different periods. The sexes mingle at lunch, in extra-curricular activities, including dances, and in tutoring classes where students receive extra help.

"At first it did bother me, but now I'm used to it," 14-year-old Janiqua Porter said over a recent lunch in the cafeteria. "I don't mind now because our concentration is more on our work."

Boys at the next table said they don't like the single-sex classes because they like having girls in class and "feel funny'' with a class full of boys.

"I'm just used to being with girls," said 15-year-old Miles Travis. "If you're going to be a young adult and go to college, you have to meet new people."

Though the concept is catching on, experts disagree on whether single-sex classes have an effect on student achievement.

Ms. Johnson, who was principal of Parham Elementary before moving to Withrow this year, said student achievement on grades and state tests improved in single-sex classrooms at Parham while discipline problems and bullying diminished.

Two Rivers principal Eric Neff said he plans to analyze discipline and grades this year to see if the concept works.

Some gender experts, however, say single-sex schools are a new recipe for old stereotypes.

Elena Silva, director of research for the American Association of University Women, said there is no proof that single-sex classes improve student achievement.

"We're not saying there is anything wrong with (single-sex schools)," Ms. Silva said. "Certainly in a situation where girls are not getting the services they need in public education, you would want to provide that. But separating students by sex is not the solution to gender inequity in school."

A report published by AAUW Educational Foundation in 1998 lists study after study on single-sex schools, many with different outcomes. Some studies found higher achievement but overlooked class size, socio-economic status, teaching practices and other factors that account for success, Ms. Silva said.

"When elements of a good education are present, both girls and boys succeed," she said.

But Dr. Sax, a Maryland physician and psychologist, counters that a 2002 British study, which took into account students' prior achievement, is proof that single-sex education works.

The study showed that girls in single-sex schools posted better achievement than their peers in mixed schools. Single-sex schools were found more beneficial for low-performing boys than higher-achieving boys.

Single-sex education makes sense, Dr. Sax said, because girls and boys use different parts of their brains when learning the same lesson. For example, girls respond to lower tones, while boys respond to louder teaching.

"It's recognizing the scientific reality that girls and boys are fundamentally different and learn differently," he said.

Catering to equality

Ms. Johnson and Mr. Neff said their schools offer equal opportunities for both sexes.

Discrimination is a concern for single-sex proponents because civil rights groups across the nation have fought single-sex public education.

In 2000, the only public school in North Carolina to experiment with it dropped the classes after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a sexual discrimination suit.

In 1997, civil rights and women's groups sued to close an all-girls school in East Harlem.

Mr. Sprankles said discrimination is not an issue in his class - girls and boys get the same education.

In a recent English class, he sat at the head of the class and shouted out questions about character and plot development to the boys. Later in the week, he sat at the head of the class and drilled the girls about setting. In both classes, the students shouted out answers as a group and most of them participated.

Science teacher Jennifer Powell said she teaches boys and girls the same lessons in her science classes but uses unique opportunities in single-sex classes to explain things differently.

In tackling chemical reactions, she talked with girls about hair perms and relaxers. With the boys, she talked about rust on cars.

"I'm teaching them the exact same work," she said.

When Ms. Powell quizzed the girls in her class about density and mass, hands shot up to answer her questions.

During an experiment using different types of liquids, such as syrup and water, to understand density, the girls discussed their findings in small groups. No one giggled or passed notes.

Students who feel comfortable in single-sex classrooms aren't thinking about stereotypes or the differences in girls' and boys' brains.

"I like it," said 14-year-old Withrow freshman Jarrell McCloud. "In front of the girls, you have to try to show off. With males you, don't. You just settle down because there's nothing to show off about."

E-mail jmrozowski@enquirer.com

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