District explores idea of single-gender classes

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By Jesef Williams

Lancaster County School District personnel are exploring the idea of bringing single-gender classes into the fold here.

Proponents say that separating boys and girls would allow teachers to key in on that gender's general learning style, which they hope would increase student achievement. Nearly 90 schools in the state feature single-gender classrooms, but no school in the district now offers the choice.

Last month, David Chadwell, the state Education Department's single-gender coordinator, spoke with local administrators and teachers about the option at A.R. Rucker Middle School.

He presented information that suggested boys and girls learn differently.

He pulled an excerpt from the book "Why Gender Matters" that maintained that boys don't hear as well as girls and that girls are more sensitive to sound.

Chadwell said boys are more engaged when the teacher moves around the class and when they're allowed to have stand-up, interactive discussion like a classroom ball toss.

Girls, though, are generally able to remain alert while seated, he said.

Chadwell said a single-gender arrangement allows a teacher to focus on the interests of one specific gender, which can make the lessons more interesting and relevant.

"With single gender, you can do a better job of bringing in their interests," he said.

A.R. Rucker Middle Principal Phillip Mickles said staff members are looking to make single-gender classes available for next year's sixth-grade class.

He believes the option may help close the achievement gap among different groups of students. He thinks single-gender arrangements may help foster stronger leadership qualities, build better social skills and reduce behavior issues.

Superintendent Dr. Gene Moore wants to get input from the school board and also see what parents, school administrators and teachers think about the idea.

"I am interested in it coming from the ground up," he said. "Parents and staff members need to have a big part in this. I want to make sure all the affected parties are on board."

If the district were to introduce the option, Moore said it would most likely be seen at the middle schools.

If implemented, Moore said single-gender classes may be initially offered for sixth-graders, as the district wants to monitor its effectiveness before expanding it to more grades.

Only a small fraction of the sixth-grade classes at a participating school would feature single-gender classrooms. Parents would still be able to enroll their children in conventional classes.

Only math, English, science and social studies would be taught as single-gender classes. Electives and exploratory classes, such as art and physical education, would still be co-ed, Moore said.

Student, parent and a teacher's thoughts

Daja Watts, a fifth-grader at North Elementary School, believes single-gender classrooms would help students stay focused. Watts, 10, said many of her friends are sometimes more concerned about impressing the opposite sex than paying attention and getting work done.

"I think it'd be good," Watts said. "We can hang out at lunch and still be able to see them (boys)."

Felice Austin, mother of North Elementary fifth-grader Eaven Austin, believes single-gender arrangements don't prepare students for life after school as well as conventional classes do.

"I don't think that gives them a real glimpse into the real world," she said. "That would be too much seclusion with one gender."

But after thinking about the benefits, she's interesting in Eaven trying it to see the effect.

"I see the pros and cons," Austin said. "That would be an option to explore. When it comes to education, we need as many options as we can get. It sounds interesting."

Laticia Stewart, a sixth-grade teacher at South Middle School, is willing to teach a single-gender class if the opportunity arises. All-girl and all-boy arrangements will allow students to feel more comfortable participating in class, she said.

"If girls are in class with just other girls, it's easier for them to speak out," Stewart said. "We have some girls here who are very smart but they won't answer out in class."

What's next?

Chadwell anticipates more than 150 schools in the state will have single-gender options available in the next school year.

Depending on district and community support, Moore said such options could be available here by the start of the 2008-09 year.

He and school board members were expected to discuss single-gender options at a retreat held this weekend. Moore said the issue may be discussed at the board's Feb. 19 meeting.

"It seems like it's having a positive impact," Moore said. "I think it certainly merits a good investigation."

Contact Jesef Williams at 283-1152 or jwilliams@thelancasternews.com