Schools try to close an achievement gap with single-sex classes

The teacher, a burly presence in the front of the room, calls his young charges “gentlemen,” even if they're really boys. He uses his steely gaze as a teaching tool, glaring at a distracted student who had just made a paper airplane. Still, he knows not to admonish the restless students for their sometimes adolescent ways – tapping their pencils and tipping their chairs back at precarious angles.

Enter the flirt-free zone at the Mario Umana Middle School Academy in East Boston, one of the few public schools in the state experimenting with single-sex classes as a way to tame raging hormones, refocus students on their studies, and begin addressing a worsening achievement gap between boys and girls.

Boys still will be boys – and launch their paper planes – but their antics have toned down, teachers said. Girls have stopped preening in class. And both groups appear to be more confident asking and answering questions.

Superintendent Carol Johnson, who took over the Boston Public Schools last August, said gender-specific programs, including single-sex classes, will be one strategy to address the achievement gap, which was highlighted in a study recently released by the Boston School Committee.

According to the study's findings, which mirror a national trend, female students in the city consistently outpace their male classmates on test scores, graduation rates, and attendance. Boys, especially black and Latino students, are more likely to get suspended, be held back a grade, and drop out.

“As we look at our data, we absolutely have to look at new ways to ensure the academic success of our young people,” Johnson said.

But as more school districts around the country look at single-gender classes as a way to improve boys' achievement, a national debate has erupted over the effectiveness of single-sex education and whether the programs erode gains for girls made under a 1972 federal law barring gender discrimination in education.

“This is a world in which we need to learn to work together, so reinforcing gender stereotypes isn't the way we ought to be going, especially when there's no evidence to say it's actually effec tive,” said Sarah Wunsch, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

While the ramifications of Boston's fledging effort remain to be seen, Paul Reville, Governor Deval Patrick's newly appointed education secretary, said he supports the idea. The Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy in Cambridge, which Reville leads, has issued a policy brief about boys across the state lagging behind and recommended that public schools be allowed to pilot single-sex classes.

“It strikes me as something that would be a worthwhile experiment for us to consider,” Reville said. “Massachusetts ought to take a close look at it because we have some significant challenges.”

Smith Leadership Academy, a charter school in Dorchester, has split boys and girls in science and math classes for five years. Two Haverhill middle schools are interested and hope to explore offering gender-segregated math classes in another year, said its new superintendent.

The state education department allows schools to create single-gender programs as long as they offer equal opportunities for boys and girls, and do not bar boys from enrolling in a girls' class, or vice versa.

US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings broadened federal regulations two years ago to give schools more flexibility to start same-sex programs. The guidelines dictated that enrollment be voluntary and a substantially equal coeducational class be provided. The number of single-sex programs in public schools nationwide has jumped from three in 1995 to more than 366 today, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

“There shouldn't be any impediments against single-sex education,” Spellings said during a visit to Boston this week. “I'm all about things that get results.”

Last year, teachers at Umana began separating a hand-picked group of boys and girls in afternoon math and English classes as part of a new extended day that provides time for a second dose of MCAS subjects.

Marco Flores, an eighth-grader, decided to transfer from a coed class after sitting in on an all-boys math class one day. He said he liked the way the teacher explained the math problems with drawings and did not care that there would be no girls. “I don't really flirt with them anyway,” he said. “I just want to get my stuff done and learn this.”

In a girls' math class on another floor of the expansive brick building, 14-year-old Emily Padilla said she concentrates better without boys around.

“If boys were here, they'd be picking on you, flirt around with you, and then you get distracted and you can't do work,” Padilla said as she waved her French-manicured fingers about.

“Not that we don't like boys,” interjected classmate Christina Soto, also 14.

Teachers at the Umana school have mixed opinions about the experiment.

English teacher Virginia Fosnock said boys usually get the most attention in coed classes because they're noisier. But in single-sex classes, “all the girls can shine,” she said.

However, some fear that an all-boys classroom, if not properly controlled, could take on the atmosphere of a fraternity house. Joseph DeCelles, another English teacher who has all boys, said he misses the dynamics of a coed classroom. Girls are more mature in middle school, he said, and are usually better students who can be used as role models in the classroom.

“If I had my druthers, I would not have an all-boys class at this age,” he said. “Girls are young women at this age and the boys are babies who still believe in bathroom jokes.”

Teachers at the Nathan Hale Elementary School in Roxbury, which experimented with single-gender classes in its fifth grade for two years, said they had to adapt their teaching styles to each gender. Sabrina Gray allowed her male students to stand up in class while reading and gave them more breaks. She asked them to repeat her instructions back to make sure they understood. And she issued one direction at a time so the boys would not tune her out. To maintain order in the classroom, she appointed students to a jury that penalized disruptive peers.

Tykwan Boswell, 13, said he liked his all-boys class last year because they felt at ease broaching uncomfortable topics such as puberty – “stuff that girls would be immature about.”

But Allister Williams, also 13, found the gender segregation to be difficult when recess squabbles would spill over into class time. “We had a little bit of conflicts in the classroom and we challenged each other in every subject,” he said.

Parents initially balked at the single-gender concept, afraid it would infringe upon their children's identities and impede their social skills, said principal Sandra Mitchell-Woods, who spent a year meeting with them before piloting the fifth grade program in the fall of 2005.

But parents eventually came around, and now say they miss the single-gender classes. The school had to discontinue the experiment this year because of an enrollment dip that cut the fifth-grade class in half.

“I saw a difference in how they carried themselves,” said Felicia Gay, whose eldest son was in the first single-gender class. “Now, the girls doll themselves up, put on their lip gloss, and bloom for the boys.”