Leah Hasty was looking to provide a male role model for Black boys enrolled in the Baltimore public elementary school where she was principal, and at the same time inspire them to perform better academically. She decided upon an approach few other public schools were trying at the time.
She created a class for boys only. Fortunately, she had available one of the rarest assets in American education--a Black man on an elementary school faculty. The teacher had grown up in the same low-income neighborhood and volunteered to teach the class as the boys progressed from grade to grade. Before long, the boys started attending school more often and got engaged with learning.
"Somebody did say to me one time, 'What about the girls?'" Hasty recalls. So she broadened and balanced the experiment, forming three classes per grade; one for boys, one for girls and one that was coed.
"With that, we determined the girls did much better in the single-sex class. The boys did better, but they were outdistanced by the girls," she says.
That was in the early 1990s. Hasty, who retired in 1995, had little idea she was pioneering an innovation that the federal government would eventually endorse.
The U.S. Department of Education last month adopted new rules that give public school districts the flexibility to establish single-sex schools and classes, as long as enrollment is voluntary and a comparable coeducational opportunity is available. U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y sponsored language in the No Child Left Behind Act that relaxed Title IX rules against gender discrimination.
Though the new rules do not mention race, they are actually a delayed response to the experiments of Hasty and other Black educators in Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee and New York. The original experiments were designed to address the needs of Black boys who come from homes and neighborhoods lacking positive male role models. Until the federal No Child Left Behind law was enacted in 2002, single-sex education in public schools stood on uncertain legal ground. Hasty says Baltimore school officials had let her proceed with a wink, but without a nod because "they were afraid it was illegal." However, her experiment attracted the attention of then-U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle, who visited boys in one of her single-sex classes, as did former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.
By the mid-1990s, the experimental classes and schools had been shuttered, under pressure from the Clinton administration and the National Organization for Women. Dr. Spencer Holland, an educational psychologist who had helped establish effective single-sex classes at another Baltimore elementary school, says in the early 1990s the Congressional Black Caucus scuttled a plan for a formal pilot project.
The idea has proved resilient, though. In the last decade, 241 public schools have begun to offer single-sex education, mostly in separate classes, according to the National Association for Single-Sex Public …