- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Dominic Capitano is at school early because his mom needs to get to work. Kenyatta Watson wants to be a better reader. Dabren Vega is earning points for his “house,” the kind made famous at the fictional Hogwarts school.

They sit in the historic auditorium in a tough part of east Tampa, all in crisp uniforms and ties, arriving as early as 7 a.m. for voluntary reading. John Haley, the principal at Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, is there for those who seek him out.

He won’t take credit for Franklin’s high test scores - or the calm, an almost otherworldly quality for a middle school. Once on a state list for possible closure, it can now be mistaken for a pricey prep school.

Haley gives all the credit to his teachers, and to the Hillsborough County School District for taking a chance and making it an all-boys school. But it’s safe to say this father of five boys is Franklin’s driving force. In the face of an ongoing federal investigation spurred by an American Civil Liberties Union complaint, he is convinced he’s giving boys something they can’t get in a co-ed school.

“It is becoming men of distinction,” Haley says. “That’s our vision and mission for our boys . It entails being a good citizen. It entails being responsible for what you do and the decisions that you make, which I think is greatly lacking amongst men in our society.”

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Five years ago there wasn’t much to brag about at Franklin. The school spent three years on a state watch list because of low test scores. In 2011, a frustrated parent made her son walk around with a sign that said, “Honk if I need education.”

Haley was principal of Madison Middle, and that situation wasn’t much better.

“It was incredibly hard to get your lowest (scoring) kids the desire or even the willingness to engage with the curriculum,” he said. “They would take no risks. They wouldn’t ask questions, they would never read publicly, they wouldn’t even do the basic skills that the teacher has to get them to engage with in order to improve . They didn’t think they were safe. They might be made fun of.”

In matters of discipline, Haley instinctively addressed boys one way and girls another. He worried he’d appear inconsistent.

When he learned of plans to make Franklin an all-boys magnet later that year, he was all in.

He wanted kids to take risks, share feedback, trust each other.

“It just doesn’t come naturally in the co-ed setting, that trust factor,” he said. “There are just so many social issues and challenges to the boys and girls being in the same classroom.”

In fall 2011, the district opened Franklin and Ferrell, a same-sized school nearby for girls. Both offered a college preparatory theme, after-school and Saturday programs. Both provided iPads for all students.

Haley set out to give the boys structure, consistency, caring teachers and current teaching methods.

Today, quaint touches mix with modern technology. Teachers address students as “Mr.,” while students perform virtual experiments on Gizmo apps.

There is no hiding in Nelson Rodriguez’s science class; an app on his tablet helps him call on students randomly to ask what they know about thermal energy. One offers a theory. Another responds, “I agree with the first part of what he said, but .”

The ACLU complaint alleges single-gender education is fueled by “junk science,” a belief that girls’ brains work differently than boys,’ which some researchers dispute. The district says the science doesn’t matter; the federal government approved the programs, so they can be offered by choice. Elsewhere, ACLU challenges have shut down some single-gender programs.

The group also alleges flawed science is the basis for teacher training and marketing that tells parents, “girls have trouble understanding abstract concepts in math,” and “boys tend to need more movement to stimulate their brains.”

Such ideas are hard to avoid at a single-gender school.

In the Franklin cafeteria earlier this month, Haley sent students who forgot to wear ID badges to the end of the line. “Typical boy,” he said to one offender, an accomplished student.

Student Lucas Blanchard said if Franklin had girls, “it wouldn’t, like, feel the same. We do a lot of athletic things, so they wouldn’t participate.” In elementary school, “our whole class wouldn’t go outside because the girls wouldn’t want to go outside.”

Colin Peeler said girls “talked a lot and they took away learning because they always answered the questions before we did. The teachers liked the girls more because there were more girl teachers. They would do more stuff for the girls.”

Uziel Rosas said in co-ed fourth grade, girls laughed when he made a mistake and it embarrassed him. “But with the boys . I started getting more comfortable because if I did make a mistake, the boys understood.”

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Haley says he was not a great student growing up. His parents, a doctor and a teacher, sent him to a private school in rural Alabama, where he struggled. Thinking he needed a small college, they sent him to Florida College in Temple Terrace.

It worked. Haley continued on to the University of South Florida. He taught social studies, coached football, moved into administration.

At Franklin, he identifies with the nervous-twitching, elbow-swinging, sweaty-haired boys who walk, right side only, down his halls. “My wife would tell you I’m not a whole lot different from them,” he said. “She’s got six boys, is what she’d say.”

The teacher in him appreciates the need for discipline and order. Kids clean up their tables after lunch, one of many ways they win points for their houses. They’re given myriad tasks to learn responsibility, from handing out iPads to serving as officers and mentors in their houses.

“I know how my father raised me and I know how I have tried, then, to raise my sons,” he said. At Franklin, “we’ve got a lot of boys who have great dads. But those kids have that as an advantage.

“My greatest satisfaction is seeing the success of boys who are struggling who don’t have that.”

He describes one sixth-grader who was teased for days by classmates because a female teacher intercepted the football during outdoor play. “Moshed by a girl” is the phrase he recalls. There was a fight. Haley spoke calmly to both boys, and later to those who had teased the sixth-grader.

“Those two boys looked at each other and they talked it out as young men,” he said. As for the others, “I just laid it out to them, what they had done and the impact that it had.” Without being asked, all three apologized.

That was huge, Haley said.

“They’re owning their decisions, their actions. Not a one of them offered an excuse. If you can make that connection with a boy in that kind of situation, then the academic responsibility piece comes right in line. They have taken personal responsibility for who they are and what they’re doing. That changes your school.”

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This is what happens when a guest shows up at Franklin: Boys approach you. They make eye contact, shake your hand. “Welcome to BPA,” they say.

At Haley’s home in rural Plant City, it’s much the same with his sons, ages 13 to 21. The youngest, Hendon, goes to Franklin. Reese, 15 and in high school, went there after two lackluster years at a larger co-ed middle school.

The others are in college. All five wrestle, and occasionally throw one another on the floor. Their mother, Stephanie Haley, stayed home with them for 15 years and now works as a nurse.

They all believe in single-gender education.

Haley doesn’t think his students are missing out on anything. They have female teachers. There are events with Ferrell.

He’s not teaching sexism, he says, but the outside world sure is. “Listen to the music. Look at the videos. It is disgusting.

“What we’re trying to do is teach our boys that the first and foremost core value . is how you treat everybody with respect. If they can learn that, if they can become that, women will be very appreciative of our boys.”

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Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), https://www.tampabay.com.


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