By Karen Houppert
Sunday, August 8, 2010; W10
On a Tuesday morning in February, Soheila Ahmad's first-grade class at Imagine Southeast Public Charter School has just finished language arts. The 12 children -- all boys, all African American -- are tidying up their desks.
There are no windows in this basement room, but one wall, the backdrop for posters, is painted sky blue.
"I need the cleanup crew here," shouts Ahmad, a 23-year-old first-time teacher, sweeping her arm around the central area of the class, where a few books lie scattered on the blue rug, and six blue beanbag chairs are arranged in a reading circle. Three boys hop to it, hoisting and heaving the beanbags into a pile against the far wall. A fourth boy collects the books and reshelves them. It is 10:30 a.m. and time for math.
"Let's practice counting by 10s to 100," Ahmad says.
The boys, standing behind their chairs, begin to chant, jumping in place as they say each number: "Ten, 20, 30, 40, ... " they sing, as their jumps and hops get bigger.
"Now let's count by 2s to 100."
The boys find their rhythm. Some do scissor jumps. Some do jumping jacks. One pounds his thighs. Another dances wildly, huffing out the numbers as a breathy backbeat. Yet another channels Michael Jackson, moonwalking backward, each sliding step punctuated by his counting. The decibels rise -- a stampeding herd of elephants racing toward 100 -- and the pace quickens. Ahmad doesn't blink an eye.
She quizzes them for 15 minutes on their addition facts and divides them into their math groups: Persevering Penguins, Ferocious Foxes, Eager Eagles. The Penguins test each other with addition flashcards. The Foxes play math games on three computer terminals in the corner. The Eagles sit on the floor and have a math lesson with Ahmad. When it is time for the groups to trade places, Ahmad asks, "All set?"
"You bet!" the boys shout, swapping places in a raucous bustle.
Upstairs in Room 202, Ginene Pointer's first-graders also are doing math. One windowless wall is painted a cheerful orange, the carpet is bright red, and yellow plastic chairs stand at the desks. The 10 students -- all girls, all African American -- sit silently at their desks while Pointer calls their math groups one by one.
"Strawberry Shortcake House," she says, as four girls stand quietly, push their chairs in and walk to the carpet, where they sit in tidy rows at her feet. "Unicorn House. SpongeBob House ..."
When all the girls are seated, Pointer, 31, who has taught for nine years, gives three of them plastic baggies with their supplies: small white boards, construction paper and markers. The leaders distribute the materials and return to their spots on the floor, crossing their legs with military precision. The girls carefully arrange scraps of construction paper on one corner of their slates, sock erasers on their laps and markers in their hands. They are ready for the game.
"Six plus unknown partner equals 15?" Pointer asks.
The girls scribble furiously on their boards. A student named MaKayla raises her hand.
"Nine!" she says softly when the teacher calls on her.
"What?" Pointer asks. "Use your big girl voice, please."
"Six plus nine equals 15," MaKayla responds firmly.
"Yes," Pointer says. "Let's give her a round of applause."
The girls clap.
"You go, girl! You go, girl!" one chants.
Another simply stares adoringly up at Pointer. "I love you more than the whole universe," she says, out of the blue.
Pointer smiles. "Love to love you, honey," she replies. "Can anyone tell me the answer to this: Eight plus unknown partner equals 17?"
The boys and girls at Imagine Southeast Public Charter School are part of a national experiment in public schools: single-sex education. While a debate rages about the potential merits and dangers of separating students during the school day based on gender, two-year-old Imagine is one of at least four publicly funded schools in the District, a smattering of public schools in Maryland and Virginia, and a profusion of public schools across the country.
Nationally, there are three primary models: the "dual academy," such as Imagine Southeast, where boys and girls are in the same building but are separated all day, except for special occasions; single-sex classes, which separate the genders only for select courses; and single-sex schools, in which the entire school is either all boys or all girls.
The surge in these schools followed new rules the U.S. Department of Education published in 2006 allowing for single-sex classes. In 2002, the National Association for Single Sex Public Education reported only a dozen such public schools in the country. This year, more than 540 are listed among the group's member schools. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance magazine, the single-sex programs "are particularly popular in urban districts with large minority populations, and most concentrated in the Southeastern U.S."
Behind the trend are a confluence of factors, including some widely publicized studies charting different academic scores for boys and girls. In March 2010, for example, the Center on Education Policy released a report of 2008 test scores showing that boys trailed girls in reading in every one of the more than 40 states where data were available. The gender gap was as large as 10 percentage points in some states, though nowhere near as significant as the race and income disparities that researchers note. The study looked at elementary, middle and high schools, where the authors found good news, too: Math scores for girls and boys were more or less the same across the board.
But over the past decade, the gender discrepancies have been bundled into "a boy crisis" by some experts and popular authors, who paint a troubling picture of boys who struggle in school, are less likely than their female counterparts to go to college, have trouble expressing their feelings and are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning problems and to commit more violent crimes. Some educators have responded to this with a Mars/Venus schematic that holds up single-sex schools as the answer.
And plenty of hopeful parents also eagerly embrace the idea. Imagine's dual academy appealed to Reginald Cooper, whose first-grade son also attended the school in kindergarten. Cooper, a 38-year-old security officer in the neighborhood, didn't know much about single-sex education when he first saw flyers for Imagine. But he says he was intrigued and particularly likes the school's goal to "get the boys on the same page as the young ladies when it comes to eagerness to learn."
"Imagine has been a real positive experience for my son," says Cooper, whose son is in Ahmad's class today.
Imagine's 323 students are squeezed into the Congress Heights United Methodist Church annex on Alabama Avenue in Southeast. The school, which is part of an Arlington-based nonprofit chain operating in 11 states and the District, plans to grow incrementally. It will add two fifth-grade classes in September and move into a bigger, newly renovated building across the street in January.
Because there is limited space, the prekindergarten and kindergarten classes are coeducational. But in the other classrooms, the school promotes subtle distinctions in teaching style and atmosphere. The girls' walls are brightly colored, while the boys' walls are more muted "because girls are stimulated by colors and boys are not," says principal Stacey Scott, an educator for 14 years. In the boys' classes, the students are allowed to move around more during lessons.
"For instance, we know that boys are very competitive in nature, so you bring some of that competition into the classroom through games and such," says Scott, who specializes in start-up schools. "We try to make the atmosphere in the classroom for girls more relaxing. Boys might be up on one knee or standing over their desks working. In a traditional classroom, the teacher is constantly telling them to 'sit down, sit down, sit down.'"
Scott refers to research that she says shows that boys and girls are wired differently, and that boys see better from a higher vantage point. Students do better when the classroom and instruction are tailored to the distinct ways in which boys and girls learn, she says -- an argument that is at the core of the dispute over single-sex education.
The boys in Ahmad's class are totally jazzed by a math game one winter afternoon. Two boys are paired against a team of two others in adding columns of numbers.
"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.
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.
In her book, Eliot describes a child development study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2000 where mothers put their 11-month-old infants on a platform and adjusted the incline of a ramp to a level they thought their babies could crawl safely down. Mothers of girls consistently put the ramp at a less steep grade than mothers of boys; yet, when scientists tested the babies' actual abilities to take a steep incline, the infants were equal.
This experiment shows that modern parents -- and teachers -- like to think they are gender-neutral, but maybe they're not, Eliot says. Boys may be "risk-takers" because parents encourage it; girls may be more cautious because parents are nervous on their behalf.
By the time children are 2, Eliot notes, they already have a profound understanding of gender and want to belong to their groups. The messages they get in the wider world of grandparents, preschools and books reinforce the rules: Girls wear pink, play house and read books in which Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are praised for their gentle kindness and beauty, occasionally sobbing at cruel injustice; boys wear blue, play with blocks, and read books in which Robin Hood and O'Malley the alley cat are fierce, combative, brave and never cry.
There are some genetic and hormonal differences between boys and girls, Eliot says, explaining that there are compelling examples, such as research showing how boys and girls gravitate toward different toys.
"But our culture exacerbates small differences by putting a wedge in and forcing boys and girls further apart. ... If we teach them together, we stand a far better chance of equaling things out."
Before Ahmad arrived at Imagine last school year to teach the boys, she knew little about single-sex education. She had received her master's degree in 2009 and expected to spend her first year in the classroom as a co-teacher, learning from the boys' first-grade teacher, Jamahr McDaniel. But McDaniel was promoted to assistant principal early in the school year, and Ahmad was suddenly teaching on her own.
To prepare, she read whatever she could find. "It makes a lot of sense, because boys and girls do learn differently," Ahmad says. "Someone asked me recently if I could teach girls, and I said, 'I don't know if I could. I'm used to how boys learn, and if I switched classes, I would have to do everything the opposite. The boys are so energetic and spunky -- and I love that.'"
Pointer also knew nothing about single-sex education when she was hired at Imagine last year. But she was intrigued enough to give it a try and asked for a girls' class. "I wanted experience teaching the girls, because I thought it would be good to work on their self-esteem and build them up," she says.
Both teachers said they were eager to learn more about single-sex education when they were chosen with other teachers from their school to attend a weekend conference in South Carolina.
It is a sunny Saturday in early spring when the Imagine group files into the cafeteria of a middle school in Moncks Corner, about 33 miles north of Charleston. They are in town for the South Carolina Department of Education's fourth annual Teacher-to-Teacher Conference on Single-Gender Initiatives.
South Carolina leads the way on single-sex education. Thousands of children throughout the state are enrolled in 160 participating public schools, and another 160 schools are weighing the option for the fall.
South Carolina teachers are conducting the workshops for 400 fellow educators from around the country. The participants have their choice of sessions, including "Smart, Sassy, and Stylish: Gender-specific procedures and strategies that can be used in the all girls elementary curriculum," "Mean Girls: Building Community In An All Girls Classroom," "Using the Glorious Gift of Gab and Glitter: How to use what comes naturally to girls to enhance classroom instruction," "Throw it, catch it, make it move: Teaching middle school boys through movement," and "Boys and Literacy."
Ahmad starts the morning in the literacy session, where Brandy Caroway and Robert Nunnery, middle school teachers from Lancaster, S.C., begin with a statement: "Boys don't like to read." Teachers who believe this statement is true are asked to move to the right side of the room; those who think it is false move to the left. Half of the 40 teachers make their way to the right; Ahmad joins the teachers on the left.
Caroway surveys the room and announces: "Actually, reading is a moderately popular activity for boys." Research shows that boys like to read at school if the text is interesting, the environment is right, if they have read often, or have been read to frequently at home and have a positive attitude about it, she says.
Pointer opts to attend a later workshop called "Ladybug Girls: Building a Strong Community in an All-Girls Class." The first-grade teacher who led the session refers to students as her little "ladybugs," decorates her class in red and black, and emphasizes community-building, an idea that Pointer says she strives to create in her own classroom.
Ahmad and Pointer also learned that girls should be given a longer time than boys to complete tasks because their brains react differently to stress. It increases the blood flow to the brain of a male and helps him remain alert, while decreasing the blood flow to the brain of a girl, leaving her not quite ready for learning, the speakers said.
David Chadwell, coordinator for single-gender initiatives for South Carolina's Department of Education, is behind the changes in his state. More pragmatist than evangelist, he is using single-gender education as a backdoor approach to raise the quality of teaching in South Carolina, where fourth-graders rank 33rd in the nation in reading and 34th in math.
"One of the nice things about single-gender classes is that we require more training in general for these teachers," he says. "And there is more buy-in from teachers this way. 'Try some of these things and see what happens,' we tell them, and then they'll listen to more substantial training about classroom effectiveness."
Much of the training for single-sex education, he says, "is just about good teaching."
Finding, training and retaining good, experienced teachers is a problem that dogs educators across the country. Critics of single-sex education say teacher quality is at the core of the problem with failing schools and that instead of addressing that issue, educators resort to tactics such as separating children in classrooms by gender.
"Schools are just looking around for whatever they can try that will improve things, and this is just an easy fix -- except that it doesn't really fix any of the problems," says Lenora Lapidus, director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project. The ACLU has challenged two single-sex schools or classes legally since 2006 -- none in the Washington area. Both cases are making their way through the courts.
"Why not go with what we know works? Smaller classes, more resources, better-trained teachers and a variety of teaching methods, because the fact is that every child learns differently," Lapidus says.
Imagine Southeast had its share of staffing and instructional challenges this year. Evaluators from the District's Charter School Board commended Imagine in most areas of its annual review this year. The assessment team, which examined all of the classrooms, noted "inconsistent approaches to behavior management" and also observed a "mixed application of single-gender strategies in the classrooms."
Scott, the principal, says she doesn't recall the team being concerned about behavior management, other than possibly noting "that maybe our procedures were somewhat different from class to class." She says the school is working to incorporate single-gender strategies into everyday activities.
Scott describes the past school year as "tougher than the first year." She says staffing problems also disrupted several classes. One teacher was asked to leave, another left voluntarily, and the original first-grade boys' teacher was promoted to the administration.
That promotion left Ahmad unexpectedly in charge of a classroom full of rambunctious boys. An energetic young woman, comfortable in jeans and a ponytail, Ahmad appears at ease among her students and employs many strategies that researchers say work well for boys. But her lack of experience sometimes seems to leave her at a loss when things edge toward chaos.
Ahmad's class is as lively as ever one morning in May as the boys finish an art project, gluing colored tissue paper squares to glass bottles, making a vase for Mother's Day. Michael Jackson's "Beat It" blares from the CD player, and half of the boys stand at their desks, jiggling and singing along to the music. Poke a piece of tissue paper on a gluey bottle. Dance a few moves. Poke a piece of paper.
"Beat it, just beat it ..." one boy sings. "I can sing and work at the same time."
But as the boys finish, they grow antsy. One group throws tissue pieces at each other; another group giggles as the boys paste tissue squares over the faces of politicians in the day's newspaper, which covers their desks as a drop cloth; another group's dance performance in the front of the room swells to ballet leaps and rowdy break-dancing.
Ahmad, who had been gluing her own bottle, suddenly stops, walks quickly to the front of the room and clicks off the tape recorder: "Okay, that's it!" The kids freeze. They look up, startled. Half of their color-coded behavior clothespins are already on yellow ("Oops. Be Careful") and orange ("Loss of recess or specials"). Two kids are on red ("Stop! Phone call home. Visit to principal's office).
One child, his clothespin already on orange, freezes mid-dance and balances on one leg, teetering. Later, the same child lands in the principal's office -- a last-resort move. She at times struggles to maintain her students' attention, and when the boys lose focus, she occasionally raises her voice.
Ahmad said she recognizes that she has much to learn. "As a teacher, you are always learning," she mused. "And I learned something from each of my 16 students, who taught me to be a better teacher for next year."
She said she regularly gets advice from her more experienced colleague, Pointer, who taught at mixed gender schools before joining Imagine. Pointer said many of the techniques she uses in her girls classroom -- such as setting clear expectations and structure and generously offering praise -- worked well for boys, too, when she taught both genders.
According to the DC Benchmark Assessment System (DC BAS), which measures students' progress annually in reading and math, 100 percent of Pointer's girls scored "advanced" in reading, compared with 50 percent of Ahmad's boys. Almost the same percentage of girls and boys scored "advanced" in math (40 percent and 38 percent, respectively), but 60 percent of the girls were "proficient" in math (the next step down from "advanced"), compared with 38 percent of the boys. The scores mirror national studies over the past several years, showing boys trailing the girls in literacy.
Scott says Ahmad "did a fantastic job for her first year." The low math scores throughout the school are "more a schoolwide issue of instruction, rather than a single-gender issue," she says. More professional development workshops in math are scheduled for next year. A math also specialist has been hired to work with the teachers.
Pointer is modest about her role. By outperforming the boys in math, her girls are an exception to the national trend. Pointer says she just enjoys finding ways to inspire them. "I was basically a guide, leading them in the right direction," she says, reflecting on the school year. "But they did all the work."
As the school year winds down, Pointer is circling the classroom one May afternoon, engaging her girls in math -- a subject that many educators say often intimidates girls and later causes them to turn away from careers in math and science.
"Who can tell me what half of four is?" the teacher asks.
A girl named Camryn raises her hand, waits to be recognized and rises beside her desk.
"Two," she says.
"What?" Pointer asks.
Camryn corrects herself into the required form of a complete sentence. "Half of four is two."
"Who agrees?" Pointer asks the class. The girls all give a thumbs up. "And two plus two is what?"
"Two plus two equals four," Camryn says.
"Who agrees?" The thumbs all go up again. "All right, round of applause for Camryn." The girls clap.
Pointer moves the class smoothly up "the doubles" until she gets to eight plus eight. "What is eight plus eight?" she asks a student named Kanyia.
"I got to write it," Kanyia says, scribbling in her notebook so she can see eight objects plus eight objects. The other girls raise their hands, but Pointer ignores them. She waits.
"12?" Kanyia asks.
Pointer leans over her student's shoulder to look at the girl's scratch marks. "We just did seven plus seven," Pointer says. "Remember our doubles, plus one. What is seven plus seven?" Kanyia knows this is 14. "Plus one," Pointer prompts. Kanyia knows this is 15. "So eight plus eight is what?"
"Sixteen!" Kanyia says, triumphantly.
"What?" Pointer asks.
Kanyia stands. "Eight plus eight equals 16."
"Who agrees?" The girls all give the thumbs up. "And what is half of 16?" the teacher asks.
Again, Kanyia struggles. "Seventeen?" she guesses.
Pointer works her through the problem.
"Ohhh!" Kanyia says finally.
With five minutes left before lunch, Pointer calls the students into a circle on the carpet for a quick counting lesson. Kanyia suddenly breaks in. "Hey," she says, surveying the group. She has an epiphany.
"Four of us are standing, and four of us are sitting. That's half of eight."
Pointer hesitates, deciding not to chide the student for interrupting. Instead, she asks Kanyia to elaborate. "There are eight girls in the class, and half of us are standing. That's four, because four is half of eight," she says.
"Excellent observation," Pointer responds, allowing a rare, fleeting smile. "Kiss your brain three times." Kanyia kisses her fingertips and touches them to her forehead three times. She answers her teacher's smile with a broader one.
"I like math," she says.
Karen Houppert is a contributor to the Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.