S.C. Leading Nation In Public Schools Offering Single-Gender Classes

Sunday, September 30th 2007, 9:13 pm
By: News On 6

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ David Chadwell believes boys and girls can get through the awkward middle school years better when they're separated, learning in classrooms tailored to the learning styles of each gender.

As the country's first and only statewide coordinator of single-gender education, Chadwell is helping to make South Carolina a leader among public schools that offer such programs. About 70 schools offer the program now, and the goal is to have programs available to every child within five years, he said.

The theory is that by separating girls and boys _ especially during middle school years typically marked by burgeoning hormones, self doubt and peer pressure _ lessons can be more effective because they are in unique classroom settings.

For example, Chadwell explains, research shows boys don't hear as well as girls, so teachers of all-boys classes often use microphones. And because boys' attention spans tend to wander, incorporating movement in a lesson, like throwing a ball to a student when he's chosen to answer a question, can keep them focused.

In one recent boys' class, a group of gangly seventh-graders sprawled on the floor around a giant vinyl chart, using skateboard parts and measuring tape to learn pre-algebra. In a different school a few miles away, middle school girls interviewed each other, then turned their surveys about who's shy and who has dogs into fractions, decimals and percentages. Classical music played softly in the background.

Teachers in all-girls classes say they've learned to speak more softly, because their students can take yelling more personally than boys. And the educators gear their lessons to what students like: assigning action novels for boys to read or allowing girls to evaluate cosmetics for science projects.

``Boys like the activities. They like moving around. They like something dramatic,'' said Becky Smythe, who teaches all-boys and all-girls English and history at Hand Middle in Columbia, which launched single-gender classes this year in its sixth grade. The school plans to expand the program to seventh grade next year.

Chadwell, a Detroit native, had spent years in classrooms elsewhere, including teaching in a Quaker school outside Philadelphia and helping start a school in China, before he began teaching in South Carolina in 1999.

Five years later, aiming to create what he calls the ``best middle school experience possible,'' Chadwell helped launch South Carolina's first public, all-day single-sex program. Then came new state schools Superintendent Jim Rex's push to expand single-gender education to give parents more options within public schools, and Chadwell seemed perfect to head those efforts. He took the post in July.

``No other state has anyone remotely like David Chadwell,'' said Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education and the author of ``Why Gender Matters.'' ``It's such an advantage to have a knowledgeable person who's led the format himself in a public school saying 'This works and this doesn't work.'''

``I'm hopeful we'll see more states following South Carolina's lead,'' Sax said.

The No Child Left Behind law allowed districts to use public school funds for single-gender education and directed the U.S. Education Department to update its rules, which it did last year. The new rules made it easier to implement same-sex education anytime schools think it will improve students' achievement, expand the diversity of courses, or meet kids' individual needs.

At least 363 public schools across the country now offer single-sex educational opportunities, according to the single-sex education association.

Separating the sexes in public schools has mixed reviews.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, believes states should not advocate educational experiments. Segregating boys and girls could damage students if boys come away with sexist ideas of being superior, or if students are boxed into learning a certain way, she said. She also questioned whether single-gender programs' successes are due to good teachers and smaller classes, not sex segregation.

``There are ways to appeal to interests and learning styles and abilities without lumping people based on gender, which is not a good measure of anything,'' Gandy said. ``At what point is it OK to make judgments of entire groups of human beings based on race or sex?''

David Belton, a Columbia parent, said he was leery of letting his daughter enroll in Dent Middle's inaugural single-gender program in 2004.

But his daughter, who then was entering sixth grade, insisted. Now he's glad she joined the program. He believes that because she wasn't self-conscious about boys' opinions of her, his daughter felt comfortable speaking out in class and her confidence flourished. She was eager to go to school every day, he said.

``I would have never thought along those lines. But I see that now, as she wants to run for this or that and get involved,'' Belton said about his daughter, now a freshman in a coed high school. ``It gave her a foundation to say 'Yes, I am that good.'''

Boys also say that being separated from girls helps them learn.

``I like it because I can focus and study more here,'' said Quinn Martin, an eighth-grader who started making the honor roll after entering an all-boys program. ``Everybody's more focused on their work, and it's easier to learn.''