As tribes go, this one is small -- and young. Every one of its 23 members is under age 10. And each of Harry Hanna's fourth-graders is, by design, a boy.
Working in teams to sort words by patterns, the boys look more like they are in a noisy clubhouse than a classroom. Here and there are comfy beanbag chairs for reading, and signs dangle overhead for the Cobra Tribe, Panda Tribe and Great White Wa Wa Tribe.
Harry Hannah poses questions to his all-boys fourth-grade mathematics class at Twin Ridge Elementary in Mount Airy. Critics of single-sex classes in public schools say the practice risks being a step backward for civil rights.
(Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
Along with a group of fifth-graders at their school, Twin Ridge Elementary in Mount Airy, the boys are part of a voluntary, two-year experiment with same-sex education in Frederick County's public schools aimed at closing a gender gap in reading scores.
The classes have a casual feel. The boys work alone or in teams, move about the classroom freely or even head outside as a group for an unscheduled recess when they become antsy. Add to that the way the boys use hands-on tools to explore math concepts, play music or sometimes recline on a sofa with their own reading selections -- sports, nonfiction, fantasy and humor figure big here -- and it is no surprise that they like what's happening at Twin Ridge.
"I think the all-boys classes are really cool," said Colt Campbell, 10, a student in Natalie Wirtz's fifth-grade class.
Though same-sex classes have appeared in recent years in other school districts, typically in struggling schools to improve student test scores, the practice is becoming more common in such areas as Frederick County, where the public schools are generally well regarded.
They have taken their cue from the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which gave parents and schools more flexibility, including the option of same-sex classes. The Education Department proposed changes last year to update regulations along those lines.
In the current school year, 154 public U.S. schools are offering same-sex education, compared with four public schools eight years ago, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, a nonprofit group created by Montgomery County physician Leonard Sax. He said the number represents 35 public schools that are completely single sex and 119 that are coeducational but also offer single-sex educational opportunities.
The experiments are part of the biggest change in coeducational public education since Title IX passed in 1972 and barred sex discrimination in federally funded programs.
Critics say that single-sex classes in public schools risk a step backward for civil rights.
"I think that what our country has learned is, it's very dangerous to experiment with segregation to make our society better," said Emily J. Martin, a staff attorney for the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I think we have too troubled a history to think that this is okay."
Frederick County would seem to be an unlikely venue to launch a controversial approach to education. Last year, for example, almost 76 percent of its fourth-graders tested at levels of proficiency or above in mathematics on state exams, and more than 79 percent tested at those levels in reading.
On test scores, however, educators discovered a gender gap in reading.
"We noticed our girls were doing fine. Lo and behold, it was the boys who were performing pitifully," Twin Ridge Principal H. Peter Storm said.
Third-grade boys and girls were less than a half-percentage-point apart on reading and mathematics tests. By fifth grade, however, a gap had opened in reading, with 93.5 percent of the girls meeting standards vs. 83.5 percent for the boys.
A committee of parents and educators researched same-sex classes, and the Frederick County Board of Education unanimously approved the experiment in March. Candidates were selected at random; their parents were allowed to opt out.
"Until the No Child Left Behind Act, these programs were seen as illegal," said Sax, who operates a family practice in Poolesville. "Now, they have finally come out of the closet."
Sax argues that same-sex education is justified by a growing body of scientific research showing differences in the structure and cognitive abilities of male and female brains that translate into differences in learning styles.
"We're at the point where we've identified more than 100 differences between the male and female brain," said Michael Gurian, a Spokane, Wash., writer whose book "Boys and Girls Learn Differently" (2001) was instrumental in Frederick County's decision to try same-sex education. He rejects the idea that segregating students by sex and styling their classes differently is a return to sexist practices.
"We're not talking about putting them up on a mountaintop for 12 years," he said.
Sax became an advocate for same-sex education after years of watching boys streaming through his door who were believed to be suffering from attention-deficit disorder and in need of medication. Instead of giving them drugs, Sax believed, society should find better ways to teach them.
But coeducational education makes it more difficult to build teaching strategies based on those innate differences, and it actually reinforces traditional gender stereotypes, Sax said.
Just as girls in same-sex settings are more likely to assert themselves in physics or computer science than those in coeducational classes, boys are more willing to try classical music, art or drama if girls are not around, he said.
"It's fine to play a flute at an all-boys school. I think if we have more single-sex schools, we will have more female fighter pilots," Sax said.
Lisa M. Maatz, public policy director at the American Association of University Women, said there is little research on whether single-sex education has a beneficial impact on students. Furthermore, the government's blessing of such experiments represents an attempt to weaken Title IX's protection against sexual discrimination without basis in scientific study, she said. "Why would you take the risk in imposing a system that could reinforce stereotypes?" she asked.
But parents, teachers and students have welcomed the same-sex classes at Twin Ridge. In Hanna's classroom, desks were covered with such books as "Thresher Sharks," "The Battle of Bull Run" and "Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds)." Perched above their cubbies was a pod-racing helmet from "Star Wars."
The din grew as the boys worked together to map words by consonants and vowels. And then, suddenly, it was time for the Village People. The boys, their shrill preadolescent voices almost drowned out by a boombox, punched out the chorus of the 1970s disco hit "YMCA." Downstairs, the mood was just as loose in Wirtz's all-boys fifth-grade class, where the boys clamor to discuss why they like having class without girls.
"This is all part of the movement and doing things in tribes," said Storm, the principal, stopping by the class. "If there were girls in here, they would probably dominate the conversation."
Wirtz, who has 24 boys in her fifth-grade class, said she had reservations about the program at first. She considers herself a feminist, has a daughter and thinks girls might also benefit from the more open style of education permitted in the boys' classes. She also acknowledged feeling uncomfortable when her class's esprit de corps smacks of sexism.
"I think if you ask the boys why they like the class, they'll say it's because there's no girls in it. It's kind of a slap in the face," she said.
But she also believes the experiment is worthwhile if it makes boys better readers.
"I don't feel I'm emphasizing any stereotypes," she said. "I'm just participating in a program that's targeting certain strategies for helping boys. I don't think I could live with myself if I was contributing to a bigger-picture problem with boys."