Prince William middle school to try single-sex classes

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Prince William County school will offer single-sex classes this fall, joining a growing nationwide trend in education.

Fred M. Lynn Middle School will run a pilot program during the coming school year that will have single-sex classrooms for core academic classes for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students. Lunch and elective courses will be coed.

"What we want is the opportunity for parents to look at the options out there," said Principal J. Harrison Coleman. "Some students can go straight through coed classes with no problems, but sometimes that student in the middle just needs things a little different. We want to open that opportunity up to them."

Coleman, who launched a similar program when she taught in another school system, pitched the idea to school administrators this month and sent a letter to parents June 11 describing the pilot program. Applications to be in the single-sex classes are due Friday, but Coleman said that if 150 students aren't signed up by then, the deadline will be extended.

A staple at many private schools, single-sex classrooms are making their way onto public campuses -- more than 500 U.S. public schools, including Woodbridge Middle, offer single-sex education opportunities, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

The trend is based on the sometimes debated notion that boys and girls learn differently and could benefit from a classroom designed for them. Proponents of single-sex classrooms say that the approach can boost children's confidence and get them to explore subjects they might otherwise not.

But some feminists and civil rights groups say that the segregation perpetuates stereotypes. American Civil Liberties Union officials said that the system doesn't prepare students for the real, coed world of work and family.

"I think there is merit to [single-sex classrooms], and I believe some students will flourish when they are not competing for the attention of their peers of the opposite sex," said Pat Puttre, associate superintendent for middle schools in Prince William. "Maybe girls will be more willing to take risks in math and science, or boys will be more comfortable reading out loud. . . . We're just hoping across the board we will get higher academic achievement."

Woodbridge Middle School Principal Skyles Calhoun said that his school phased-in the single-sex classroom program in 2007 and that it has been a success. Attendance improved slightly in single-sex classes, and the performance gap between boys and girls decreased in certain subjects.

Calhoun said the school plans to measure long-term success by tracking students from the single-sex classrooms as they go through coed high schools.

"The very first year, we did a survey after about three months, and the biggest sign of success to me was, boys were coming back and saying 'I like school,' " Calhoun said. "For sixth-grade boys to say that -- well, that was just unheard of."

Calhoun said he trained his staff for a year before implementing the program. He also educated parents about single-sex classrooms and explained how to determine if they were right for their children.

"Taking the time to train teachers prior to implementation and educating parents about the same-gender structure has been the key to our success," he said. "There is much more to it than simply putting girls in one room and boys in another."

At Fred M. Lynn, Coleman said she plans to update the school's Web site by the end of the week with more information for parents. Coleman said her school tested the waters this year, placing 10 boys who were failing math into a single-sex classroom for a few months before the Standards of Learning test. Nine out of the 10 passed the math SOL. She said that teachers will be trained this summer to implement the program in the fall.

"This idea has been taken on with such enthusiasm," Coleman said. " A number of our parents have said they are interested . . . and our teachers are very interested in doing the research and getting the background knowledge" to make it a success.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company