- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

RICHMOND A public middle school in Chesterfield County has segregated nearly half of its sixth-grade students by sex this school year, making it one of only a handful of schools in the country to experiment with single-sex education.

While the split was unintentional initially computer-generated class lists put more boys in some sixth-grade classes and more girls in others at the beginning of the year administrators at Bailey Bridge Middle School say they have been pleased with the results.

Teachers are reporting fewer disciplinary problems, said Principal Deborah E. Marks, and students are performing well in their classes.

Parents, too, can see a difference in their children.

"They've always had good grades, but I feel they're coming into their own now, doing even better," said Angela Compton, mother of triplets Megan, Taylor and Sara Beck, who are in the all-girls classes.

The classes came about after what Miss Marks called a computer fluke placed the majority of boys in one of the school's sixth-grade "teams" and the majority of girls in another. There are five sixth-grade teams at Bailey Bridge, each made up of 100 to 120 students who attend their core classes together in science, social studies, math and language arts.

Rather than reshuffle all the teams to correct the boy-girl ratio, administrators decided to create two wholly single-sex teams instead.

Miss Marks said it was an opportunity to try something new.

"Some of us had read articles on what they're doing in other schools, on the possible benefits [of single-sex education]," she said. "We feel very excited about it. The children say they thoroughly enjoy being in the unified grouping. Some have gone back to several of their old teachers to tell them they're having such a good time in their classes."

According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, a Maryland-based advocacy group, there are only 16 single-sex public schools in the country and 40 to 50 offering single-sex classes, but not requiring them. The idea, which some experts say creates a more conducive atmosphere for learning, has picked up steam since it was made legal under the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush this year.

Title IX still prohibits public schools from discriminating on the basis of sex, but the new legislation makes single-sex schools permissible if comparable curriculums and facilities are made available to both sexes. The U.S. Education Department is drafting new Title IX regulations to reflect the changes in the law, but a final version won't likely take effect until next year.

In the case of Bailey Bridge, Miss Marks said the plan was approved by the county's office of secondary education. Parents also were given the option to pull their children out of the split teams, though not until after the new teams were formed. None did.

The students spend about 4½ hours each day in their segregated core classes; their hallways and lockers also are separated from the other students'. Miss Marks said electives, physical education and lunch remain coed.

Although Miss Marks said it's too early to tell the full effect of the classes, some benefits have been readily apparent. Only a few girls on the all-female team have received detentions, and none of the boys on the all-male team in the first nine weeks, Miss Marks said.

Forty percent of the girls and 25 percent of the boys also were on the honor roll after the first nine weeks, she said.

"I think the students are better able to express themselves and be creative," Miss Marks said. "They're also willing to take risks, which sometimes could be hindered by what the girls or the boys in the class might say. At this age, that's a big deal."

Mrs. Compton said her three daughters don't feel as nervous about speaking out in class. Two of the triplets are on the honor roll, and the third missed it by one C+ in an honors class.

It's helping the girls academically, Mrs. Compton said, but not hurting them socially.

"I haven't seen any difference" in how they interact with boys, she said. "If they're not in the class with them, they're on the bus with them. One of my daughters has a little friend who calls her at home."

Some, though, question whether the children should be split apart. One teacher, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the segregated classes reduce opportunities for boys and girls to interact.

"The kids are hitting puberty. Middle school is the place to start developing social graces," the teacher said.

The teacher added that while the experiment is generally going smoothly, there are some bumpy spots. For example, the teacher said, it can be difficult to get a class full of boys to settle down.

Groups such as the National Organization for Women, the National Education Association and the American Association of University Women say that separate classes can never be completely equal, and the idea may promote sex stereotypes.

"It is in fact a giant step backward in equality for girls and women," said Terry O'Neill, a spokeswoman at NOW's headquarters in Washington. "I think it's saying we're going to give girls an inferior education."

Miss O'Neill said the separate classes send a message to girls that they can only be competitive and exhibit leadership around other girls. Boys, in turn, will grow up believing they don't have to take orders from women.

But Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist and physician who heads the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, disagrees. He said students tend to perform better in these environments because boys and girls are programmed to learn differently. Single-sex schools allow teachers to mold their instruction around students' specific needs, making it more effective.

Dr. Sax said, for instance, that boys tend to thrive in competitive and highly st ructured environments, while girls do better working in groups.

"Experienced teachers know this," he said. "They figured it out on their own."

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