Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Separating the Boys from the Girls: Can Separate Ever Be Equal? Single-Sex Schools Draw Fire from Rights Groups Who Say Separate Is Never Equal; Proponents Say Closing the Achievement Gap Requires Innovation

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Separating the Boys from the Girls: Can Separate Ever Be Equal? Single-Sex Schools Draw Fire from Rights Groups Who Say Separate Is Never Equal; Proponents Say Closing the Achievement Gap Requires Innovation

Article excerpt

A roomful of boys worked quietly and seriously during their Saturday language arts enrichment class at Claremont Academy in Chicago's tough Englewood neighborhood.

Then, a girl walked in. Boys slumped in their chairs and became less engaged in the work.

"The same level of questioning continued, but the answers changed. The discussion became limited to head nodding and staring," said principal Rebecca Stinson. "All I could think about was how are these students going to learn when academic achievement is secondary to social interaction with peers."

Stinson calls that experience her "aha" moment which pushed her to separate 7th- and 8thgrade boys and girls for their academic subjects, a shift that occurred in fall 2007.

Richard Carter, an 8th grader at Claremont, believes single-sex classes offer a better learning environment. "With girls in the room, we spend too much time thinking about girls ... trying to make girls smile or laugh," he said.

"It's not bad being in segregated classrooms," said 8th grader LaQuasia Harrison. "It helps us to focus more." After several years, Claremont Academy points to its results on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test as evidence that its approach to learning works for its students: Last year, the composite score of Claremont students meeting or exceeding state standards were 76% higher for 8th graders in math and reading, and 82% higher for 7th graders in math, reading, and science. (Eighth graders were not tested in science.)

Claremont teachers believe the test score improvement goes beyond simply separating the sexes. They said it's their focus on the students that improves learning. Students have the same four teachers for their academic subjects in 7th and 8th grades, so teachers get to know them over two crucially important academic years. The teachers are a closely knit group who have worked together for six years and frequently discuss students. They said students are surprised when their math teacher talks about their language arts assignments.

Math teacher Tammara Wofford said the boys and girls don't learn differently, "but they do have different interests," which she uses to reach them in teaching. For example, when giving a basic economics lesson to boys, she tells them they'll be the future heads of households and will need to know about money, how to calculate and pay bills, and how to plan a budget. Giving the same lesson to the girls, she tells them they will be the future managers of the household money, so they'll need to know about money, how to calculate and pay bills, and how to plan a budget. "I teach them the same things, they just take it differently," Wofford said.

However, conversations with students also reveal the reality of their lives outside school--the world beyond the three security guards who stand watch at corners of the building each morning as students arrive. In a conversation with a group of Claremont students selected to talk about their single-sex classes, nearly all say their mothers gave birth before turning 18; none of them has an ongoing relationship with their father; and in one way or another, all are affected by local street gangs. They talk matter-of-factly about fathers they see only once in a while, or never, and other relatives shot and killed.

"Puberty is different for children in high poverty," said principal Stinson. Children from low-income families lack the resources and outlets that middle-class kids have, she said, and the consequences of their missteps can be more severe and longer lasting.

The school's 540-student body is 97% black, and 96% come from low-income homes qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The school serves all students breakfast, lunch, and a late afternoon meal before leaving for home. More than 40% of the student body will move in or out of the school in any given school year.

Stinson's students and their scores have become a proof point in a broadening argument between adults and institutions over whether single-sex education does more good than harm, or whether it does any good at all. …

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