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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.

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.

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By Karen Houppert
Sunday, August 8, 2010

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.

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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.


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