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More Schools Trying Separation of the Sexes

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By Michael Alison Chandler and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mrs. Demshur's class of second-grade girls sat in a tidy circle and took turns reading poems they had composed. "If I were a toucan, I'd tweet, I'd fly," began one girl. When she finished, the others clapped politely.

Down the hall, Mr. Reynolds's second-grade boys read poems aloud from desks facing every direction. A reading specialist walked around with a microphone. "If I were a snow leopard, I would hunt, I would run," began one boy. One classmate did a backbend over his chair as he read. Another crawled on the floor.

So went a language arts lesson at Washington Mill Elementary School last month, with boys in one room and girls in another. The Fairfax County school, in the academic year that is ending, joined a small but fast-growing movement toward single-sex public education. The approach is based on the much-debated yet increasingly popular notion that girls and boys are hard-wired to learn differently and that they will be more successful if classes are designed for their particular needs.

With encouragement from the federal government, single-sex classes that have long been a hallmark of private schools are multiplying in public schools in the Washington area and elsewhere. By next fall, about 500 public schools nationwide will offer single-sex classes, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, based in Montgomery County. That's up from a handful a decade ago. The approach is especially attractive to some struggling schools in the market for low-cost reform.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind law cites single-gender classes as one "innovative" tool to boost achievement. But anti-discrimination laws banned widespread use of such classes, allowing them only in certain instances, such as sex education lessons. A change in federal regulations in 2006 gave schools more flexibility, allowing boys and girls to be separated as long as classes are voluntary and "substantially equal" coeducational classes are offered.

Several Washington area public schools have tried single-sex classes or plan to begin them. Woodbridge Middle School in Prince William County on Friday ended the first year of a two-year pilot program that offers single-sex instruction in core academic classes for some students. In Prince George's County, Drew-Freeman Middle School students will be split by gender for most classes starting in August. In the District, two new charter schools offering same-sex classes are set to open in August.

As the movement grows, so does debate over whether boys and girls really do learn better separately. Research remains slim on whether single-sex education boosts achievement in public schools. Most studies have examined private schools.

Proponents of same-sex schooling argue that girls and boys are too often shortchanged by coed classrooms and that students from lower-income families deserve access to learning environments once exclusive to private schools. Advocates also cite emerging research that indicates gender differences in brains and cognitive development.

"We as a nation do not understand gender difference and . . . regard it as politically incorrect to discuss it," said Leonard Sax, founder of the single-sex education association and author of "Why Gender Matters." As a result, he said, schools are not helping students reach their potential. "We are unintentionally pushing girls out of computer science, and pushing boys out of subjects" such as arts and languages. He contends that single-sex schooling can reverse the trend.

But many feminists and civil rights leaders cite a long history of separate and unequal education for girls, and argue that segregation will perpetuate damaging stereotypes. The American Civil Liberties Union and five Kentucky families with middle school students filed a lawsuit in May against the U.S. Department of Education and others alleging that the school's single-sex program violates federal anti-discrimination law and is unconstitutional.

"Single-sex education isn't the best preparation for a coeducational world," said Emily J. Martin, deputy director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.

Washington Mill Elementary Principal Lizette "Tish" Howard said uniform state standards and teacher quality requirements ensure parity for all classes. She said all-boys and all-girls classes could help remedy long-standing inequities she has observed in her career, such as overrepresentation of boys in special education.

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