News

Boys and girls-only classes proposed

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Boys in one classroom and girls in another.

That’s an idea Federal Way Public Schools is contemplating testing at a middle school or high school.

At a recent School Board study session, the idea of having single-gender classrooms for math and science was presented by board member Charles Hoff and received interest from his colleagues. The district’s administration has been directed to make a presentation to the board at a future meeting with the names of schools interested in trying the method. Superintendent Tom Murphy said it might be mid-February before a report would be ready.

Board member Ed Barney said a date for talking about the proposal at a board meeting hasn’t been set, but it could be as early as Nov. 23 or Dec. 7.

Murphy said it appears single-gender classes would cost no more than co-ed classrooms.

There is research that shows separating the genders has benefits based on test score results and behavior and discipline problems. There are also critics who claim single-gender classrooms perpetuate stereotypes and don’t give girls an equal education.

Were Federal Way to try single-gender, it wouldn’t be the first district in the state.

Seattle Public Schools’ Thurgood Marshall Elementary School has had single-gender classrooms since 2001, when then-principal Benjamin Wright piloted the program for the third and fourth grades. The main issue then, Wright said from Philadelphia, Pa., where he now works, was poor behavior in those grades. There wasn’t a lot of research at the time and he didn’t know of other schools trying single-gender classrooms, but he wanted to try something, Wright said. The results: Behavior problems dwindled to a few and test scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) were up.

The 2000 results on the WASL were low. In that year, 10.8 percent of the fourth-graders met the state’s standard on the exam and 13.5 percent met the state standard for writing. The reading section of the test had 27 percent meeting the state’s requirements.

A year after moving to single-gender in the third and fourth grades, Marshall went to a year-round schedule. It also expanded the grades with single-gender classrooms. By 2003, the WASL scores were significantly higher in the school where more than 84 percent of the students are on free or reduced-price lunch program –– an indicator of poverty. Nearly 58 percent of the students were meeting the state’s requirements for math, almost 61 percent were reading at the state’s level and 56.5 percent were writing at standard.

Those scores dipped in 2004, with almost 35 percent meeting standard for math. The reading and writing scores were about the same.

Wright said he didn’t get any opposition changing to single-gender classrooms from parents, teachers or students. But the state questioned whether the school’s move was legal. However, by that time Wright had done some research and pointed to a 1994 state executive order that allowed single-gender classrooms if there was a gender-related problem. Wright cited discipline as his justification because most of the problems were from the boys and directed at the girls.

Since the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, it is easier for schools and districts to try the single-gender approach and not have as many legal challenges, Wright said. The federal law that demands students perform at certain levels over the next few years also broadens the interpretation of Title IX, which established women getting an equal education to men.

That National Association for Single Sex Public Education points to anecdotal evidence from teachers and students of behavior problems going away and both genders focusing in class. It also cites studies in the United Kingdom and Australia that students in single-gender classrooms have better academic results.

There are critics, both nationally and locally.

The National Organization for Women states its opposition to single-gender education on its Web site, claiming historically “female-dominated programs” aren’t funded as well as their male counterparts and there isn’t conclusive evidence that single-gender classrooms are academically more advantageous.

The National Women’s Law Center wrote to newspapers in March, stating single-gender classrooms would endanger girls’ equal education and perpetuate stereotypes of the sexes.

In Federal Way, Hoff said if the pilot program goes forward, it would be introduced on a limited basis. Only math and science classes would be separated, probably starting in one high school or middle school. Boys and girls would have lunch and other classes to socialize.

But socializing isn’t the reason schools exist, he said.

“A little less of this and a little more academic achievement might not be so bad,” Hoff said.

Board member Evelyn Castellar points to a recent experience she had at a seventh-grade class while giving a presentation. While she was waiting for the lights to be turned out for her Power Point presentation, she noticed a boy had come up to a girl and put his arm around her. The students were separated.

Castellar supports single-gender classrooms but acknowledges “it’s not going to be for every classroom.”

Wright said school districts and educators from around the country and internationally contact him about starting single-gender classes in their schools. He has some advice:

• Most important is to get the teachers to agree to the concept. It will not work without them.

• Next, get parents involved in the school and the single-gender program.

Don’t try a districtwide move to single-gender. It tends to go badly. Start small and grow.

• A lot of planning is important –– and documenting the planning as it progresses. That way the district and the public will know what steps were taken and those for the future, he said.

Wright’s work in Philadelphia is for Victory Schools, a private company that runs public schools. The region he oversees has five schools with single-gender classes and two academies –– one for girls and the other for boys –– and two elementary schools next year that will be single-gender.

He said he visited Marshall Elementary in Seattle last summer and pronounced the school in good health.

“When you get results like that, you’d be a fool to change it,” he said.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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