Same-sex classes get approval

Published February 8, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - What happens when you teach boys and girls separately?

Westside Elementary School will find out beginning next fall, under a pilot program authorized Tuesday by the School Board.

By a 5-0 vote, the board enthusiastically endorsed principal Charles Johnson's effort to establish same-gender classrooms at each grade level in one of the region's first trials of a controversial education theory.

"All the best research says that's a viable alternative, and I expect success in the first year," said board member John Sweeney.

It was a far different reception than the one Johnson received last spring, when the board sharply questioned a plan to assign students randomly to the program and then give parents the chance to opt out.

District officials withdrew that plan after learning federal officials had not explicitly permitted the practice under amendments to Title IX.

Those regulations have since been issued, clearing the last legal hurdle for the district.

This time, participation is voluntary, and boys and girls will take their physical education and arts classes together.

"We're not trying to make monks and nuns out of them," Johnson said later. "This is just for the core academics."

He said he'll collect reams of data on the learning gains or losses, as well as disciplinary trends and attitude shifts. He plans to survey parents within weeks to gauge their interest in participating.

"We'll also do surveys with kids, 'How do you feel about it?' " Johnson said. "Because they have attitudes about it."

Such data might contribute to the national discussion on same-gender education.

A leading proponent, Alan Sax of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, insists that same-gender classes can break help down stereotypes, encouraging girls in science and boys in poetry.

Critics - including the National Organization of Women and the National Women's Law Center - warn of the potential for inequities and lack of regulation.

"In fact, without the safeguards in place that the (new federal) regulations will eliminate, boys can miss out on options seen as 'unmanly,' and girls can get less experienced teachers, fewer class resources, and miss out on challenging classes seen as better for boys," said NWLC co-president Marcia Greenberger in a statement.

But Hernando board members said they were excited about the prospect of launching a voluntary program. Board member Sandra Nicholson called it "long overdue."

Hernando would be the second district in the Tampa Bay area to try same-gender education. Last fall Belcher Elementary School in Clearwater created four classrooms in a trial of the practice. Melrose Elementary is St. Petersburg is also using same-sex classes.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.