More American elementary and secondary schools are embracing the idea that a student will perform better in the classroom when a key distraction is removed: the opposite sex.
Single-gender classrooms within coed schools have exploded in number over the past decade, rising from about 50 in 2003 to more than 400 this year. South Carolina is leading the way, with more than 100 districts offering all-boy and all-girl classes. Schools in the District and 39 other states, including Maryland and Virginia, also offer classes geared specifically toward each gender, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE).
Critics liken the approach to segregation, but proponents counter that the practice creates a better learning environment and frees teachers to tailor lesson plans to their students.
"Girls will usually say that they're able to share their ideas more in an all-girls classroom. Boys will tend to say that they're not distracted by the girls," said David Chadwell, South Carolina's coordinator for single-gender initiatives.
In all states, single-sex classes are optional. Under federal law, states and districts must offer traditional coed settings, so parents voluntarily sign up their children for single-gender sessions in math, science and other core subjects.
Typically, art and music classes remain open to either sex, and in most cases, boys and girls still interact in hallways between periods, at lunch or during physical education classes.
Supporters don't suggest that boys and girls learn subject matter differently. Rather, natural contrasts between boys and girls combined with social factors can lead to big differences in how they act in the classroom, said E. Mark Mahone, director of neuropsychology at Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute, which specializes in child brain development and disorders.
Boys often retain "interfering behaviors" longer than girls, which sometimes can lead them to disrupt class, he said. Some girls may be more reluctant to speak up for fear of embarrassing themselves in front of their male counterparts.
"There are a lot of factors that go into learning that can either enhance it or get in the way," he told The Washington Times in an interview. "There is a lot of evidence to suggest benefits for having single-sex education."
Schools that have successfully implemented same-sex classes often report more attentive students and fewer disruptions as well as a more lively back-and-forth between teachers and their students.
"It has really cut down on behavioral issues," said Pat Puttre, associate superintendent for middle schools at Prince William County Public Schools.
Several schools in the county have offered single-gender classes. Some have worked, while others were discontinued because of lack of interest. Woodbridge Middle School is entering its fifth year of offering single-sex classes, and Ms. Puttre said the response from both students and parents has been overwhelmingly positive.
Fred Lynn Middle School, however, experimented with single-gender classrooms last year with little success.
"They had minimal participation," Ms. Puttre said. "They're taking a step back" but may try to reintroduce single-sex classes in the future.
Fred Lynn isn't the only one. More than 100 school districts have tried same-sex classes only to see the idea end in failure.
"The most common reason is a failure to train the teachers," said Dr. Leonard Sax, founder and executive director of NASSPE.
The needed changes in approach don't extend to the curriculum. State standards dictate that the subject matter and basic concepts don't change depending on the gender of the students.
Instead, the "strategies" of teachers change, according to Mr. Chadwell. He said South Carolina teachers, for example, develop more fluid lesson plans for boys, breaking up the session with various activities and discussions to hold students' interest. In all-girls classrooms, he said, teachers can be more traditional.
Regardless of a teacher's approach, Dr. Sax said most parents naturally have questions when a district implements single-sex classes.
Districts are wise, he said, to address their concerns as soon as possible, preferably with question-and-answer sessions with teachers and school administrators. States that have the most success with single-sex classrooms, he added, try to anticipate parents' questions and concerns.
In South Carolina, for example, Mr. Chadwell's full-time job is to travel from district to district, easing the fears of teachers and parents.
"Teachers are usually thrilled. Once they get a better understanding, they say this makes a lot of sense," he said.
In the state's latest annual survey, he said, more than 80 percent of parents said they were satisfied with the single-gender approach.
But some parents, Dr. Sax said, will simply never accept the idea.
"We're not suggesting that every child should be in a single-sex classroom," he said, "but we believe that every parent should have the choice."
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