Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said the Arlington-based chain that contractually manages Imagine Southeast Public School in the District is a nonprofit. Imagine Southeast is a nonprofit, but Imagine Schools is a for-profit chain that has applied with the Internal Revenue Service for nonprofit status but has not yet been granted it.
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Separate but equal: More schools are dividing classes by gender

Students at D.C.'s Imagine Southeast Public Charter School are part of a new -- and debated -- national experiment in public schools: single-sex education.

"Keith and Shawn versus Dionte and River," Ahmad announces. The four boys stand, counting fingers poised, as Ahmad writes 56 plus 20 on the board. Dionte and River consult each other in a furious whisper. River counts on his fingers, and Dionte raises his hand.

"Seventy-six!" he shouts. When Ahmad nods, the boys high-five each other. Keith and Shawn, eliminated from the round, sit down. The teacher calls the next set of competitors, who stand and whoop, pumping themselves up.

Upstairs, in Pointer's classroom, the girls are reviewing the same material, adding two-digit numbers. Like her counterpart, Pointer sometimes energizes the girls' lessons with competition (which experts say is particularly effective with boys). And Ahmad sometimes engages her boys by using collaboration (which is said to be especially motivating for girls).

The girls sit sedately on the carpet and wait for instructions. "The first person to solve the equation will get a point for their house," says Pointer, who awards the groups "house points" toward a prize. Pointer writes 16 plus 10 on the board, and three girls' hands shoot up simultaneously. They wave excitedly (but quietly), hoping to be the first to get the teacher's attention and win the competition.

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One of the main advantages of a single-sex classroom is that the differences between boys and girls can be exploited to the benefit of both, says Leonard Sax, a psychologist, physician and a leading proponent of single-sex education, who will conduct a professional development workshop with the Imagine Southeast teachers in mid-August. For example, studies have shown that girls have sensitive hearing and may be intimidated by teachers they perceive as yelling at them, Sax says.

Girls also are easily distracted by boys, who have a harder time sitting still and being quiet, Sax says. In an all-boys class, the boys may be loud and wiggly, but they're learning. As long as there are no girls around to be distracted, he argues, why not let them wiggle?

In his 2005 book, "Why Gender Matters," Sax cites a 1999 Virginia Tech study, where researchers found that boys' brains were developmentally years behind girls' when it came to qualities such as fine motor skills. That put the boys at an immediate disadvantage in school, where many are frustrated by trying to read and write before they're ready, Sax says. As a result, he says, many boys often check out mentally and underperform.

"At what age do we find the single-sex format has the greatest capacity to not only boost educational achievement but to change the academic trajectory?" he asks rhetorically. "The earlier, the better."

But Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, doesn't accept the arguments for single-gender schools. "I'm a neuroscientist, and this claim that boys and girls learn differently because their brains are different is just not supported by real scientific data," she says.

Eliot, the author of "Pink Brain, Blue Brain," says she assumed she'd find a slew of powerful differences between girls' and boys' brains but grew frustrated by the research. "If you put all the research together, you are very underwhelmed by the difference," she says. "Boys do have bigger brains than girls, but they also have bigger bodies -- and hearts and lungs -- so I can't get too excited about that. This whole Mars versus Venus idea that our minds are from different planets is really inaccurate."

Eliot says girls reach puberty two years earlier than boys, but separating what is biologically driven from what is culturally imposed can be tricky, especially considering that the messages girls and boys get start at birth.


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