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Unisex ed being tested

Two Pinellas elementary schools separate the girls and the boys in hopes of raising test scores as single-sex classrooms did in another Florida school.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 8, 2006

CLEARWATER —- Even on the first day of school, the difference in the two classrooms was striking.

Leslie Spadola’s second-grade boys bristled with energy. They bounced around the room and into each other. They tore into their new textbooks and furiously capped and uncapped their new glue sticks.

Meanwhile, the second-grade girls next door sat quietly at their desks, pencils poised over work sheets. Occasionally, a girl would turn to a neighbor and ask a question in a voice that barely rose above a whisper.

These students at Belcher Elementary, along with a group of fourth-graders at Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg, are part of a controversial experiment this year in Pinellas County: single-sex classrooms.

Spurred by research that suggests boys and girls learn differently, Belcher and Melrose are joining nearly 200 public schools across the nation that offer a single-gender option. The idea, administrators say, is to tailor teaching styles to match the different ways boys and girls learn.

While boys rush in to answer questions, girls are less likely to take a chance on responding, especially in math and science classes, said Belcher assistant principal Robert Ovalle.

And boys are less likely to take chances with reading and writing, especially if they know girls might outshine them.

“We want to eliminate those roadblocks,” Ovalle said.

The program is unique in the Tampa Bay area. Hernando County talked about creating single-sex classrooms but backed off for this year. The Hillsborough school district has used them, but only in its dropout prevention program.

The theory has its critics. Some feminist groups, including the National Organization for Women, argue that single-gender classrooms promote stereotypes. Others worry that focusing on gender could distract educators from issues such as class and race, which also can affect learning.

But Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, disagrees.

“Boys and girls see and hear and learn in profoundly different ways because their eyes and ears and brains are built differently,” said Sax, a pediatrician. “In the last five years, we’ve learned that boys and girls are seeing and hearing different things even though they’re sitting in the same room.”


One Florida school has a track record with single-gender classrooms. In 2004, Woodward Avenue Elementary in DeLand randomly assigned every fourth-grader either to a coed classroom or to a single-sex classroom.

At the end of the year, 57 percent of the girls in the coed classroom scored proficient on the state writing test. But in the single-gender classroom, 75 percent of the girls hit that mark.

Only 37 percent of the boys in the coed classroom scored proficient. That compared to 86 percent of the boys in the all-boys class, including some who had been labeled learning disabled.

“You can see that when you make concessions for learning styles and adjust strategies to their needs, you get better results,” principal JoAnne Rodkey said.

Ovalle, the assistant principal at Belcher, is hoping for something similar.

Last winter, he and principal Lisa Roth crunched standardized test data and learned that reading, writing and math scores differed greatly for boys and girls. Girls were reading at a significantly higher level than boys, while boys were outperforming the girls in math.

After a parent poll indicated widespread interest in single-gender classrooms, Ovalle and Roth visited Woodward Avenue. When they returned, they decided to convert one second-grade class and one third-grade class into single-sex classrooms. They gave parents who weren’t interested the option of keeping their children in coed classes.

At a time when Pinellas is turning a laser focus on raising student achievement, Carol Thomas, an assistant superintendent in charge of Pinellas elementary schools, saw the change as a worthwhile experiment.

“It’s almost impossible to isolate a single variable, but it appears that perhaps this might be one of the contributing factors to student success,” Thomas said.
Roth took that as a sign to forge ahead. “Since then, it sort of took on a life of its own,” she said.


On Tuesday, teachers and students in the single-gender classrooms at Belcher and Melrose started getting to know one another.

Spadola, the second-grade boys teacher at Belcher, greeted 20 children. Among them was Dakotah Lawson, 8, who staked out a spot on an orange beanbag chair with his friend Matthew Cummings, also 8. Together, the boys rapidly turned the pages of a book, laughing hysterically at pictures of frogs and toads.

Their classroom was different from the girls’ rooms. Half of the ceiling lights were turned off because research suggests that boys perform better in low light. Plastic bins were filled with action-packed chapter books, and the area rugs in the “gathering areas” featured rich blues and earth tones.

In contrast, Heidi Baird’s second-grade girls’ classroom and Steve Abernathy’s third-grade girls’ classroom were brightly lit. The walls in Abernathy’s classroom were painted a pale yellow, and pastel-colored helium balloons floated near the ceiling.

The differences in teaching style were just as obvious.

While Baird and Abernathy spoke in quiet tones to the girls, urging them to employ reasoning skills and allowing them plenty of time to ask questions, Spadola and Harvey got the boys out of their seats every 15 minutes to allow them to work off excess energy.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the county, Melrose Elementary teachers Debbie McDonald and Erna Highsmith were meeting and greeting their fourth-grade single-gender classes. Around 10:45 a.m., they dismissed the children for coed PE.

Highsmith, a 37-year veteran, said she was amazed that not one of the girls had asked for a restroom pass. “They followed directions beautifully,” Highsmith said. “I was amazed.”

After a slower start, McDonald, who is beginning her 34th year at Melrose, said her 27 boys also settled down.

“Some of them were asking, 'Where are the girls?’ ” McDonald said. “About 20 minutes into the class they were saying, 'We like it this way.’ ”

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 8, 2006, 22:29:25]

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