Report card on same-sex ed

Some kids do better than others in a single-gender experiment at a primary school.

Published May 21, 2007

One year into an ambitious project that placed boys and girls in separate classrooms, Belcher Elementary teachers have learned a thing or two about the sexes. Boys, they say, perform better when they're given one direction at a time. They like having plenty of space to move around. They're quite capable of working through squabbles without adult interference. They've found that girls like to know all the steps before they begin a project. They like to talk things over among themselves. They can be every bit as competitive as boys when it comes to getting the right answer.

But the teachers also have learned this: Single-gender education doesn't work for every child, despite some research to the contrary.

"This time last year, all we knew was to separate by gender, " said Belcher principal Lisa Roth. "Now we know which children would benefit most from a single-gender setting."

Early indications are that the "single gender project" in Clearwater has been a success, Roth said. Academic achievement for boys and girls in the single-gender second- and third-grade classes is up slightly, and behavior referrals are down. Perhaps most important, Roth said, parents like the option of choosing between single-sex and coed classes.

While the idea of making single-gender classrooms mandatory at some Florida schools failed to gain traction in the recent legislative session, Pinellas officials are cautiously optimistic about Belcher's potential. School staff have decided to offer the option to kindergarteners, first-graders and fourth-graders next year.

Meanwhile, administrators at Dunedin Highland Middle School are discussing a single-gender sixth-grade option for 2008-09.

As single-gender education becomes more mainstream, it will lose the "fishbowl quality, " said Kathy Stevens, of the Colorado-based Gurian Institute, which helps schools and parents understand how gender affects learning.

"Assuming the school continues to prepare teachers properly, " Stevens said, "things should continue to change in a positive way."

* * *

Fran Harvey's classroom smells like apples. The lights are turned low. Nineteen third-grade boys recline on an area rug on a recent morning listening to Harvey read a story.

They scramble to their feet when she announces it's time to go to the computer lab to work on poetry. They move down the hallway in a crooked line, trying to keep their hands to themselves.

Soon after settling in the lab, one boy gets frustrated and erases everything he's done so far. Harvey tries to soothe him. Meanwhile, Anthony Micciche, 8, is halfway through his first poem.

"Human, Italian, brother of Gina,

Who loves family, mashed potatoes and all animals,

Who fears snakes, Komodo dragons and death ..."

Halfway through class, Harvey separates one of the boys from the others for "being mean."

"I have a lot of chiefs in here, a lot of strong-willed young men, " she says. "That characteristic will be good for them later on, but it's not always so good in the classroom."

Harvey has suggested five boys return to a coed class next year. An overabundance of "alpha males" has hindered cooperation at times, she said.

During the year, some of the quieter boys retreated farther into the shadows, she said. Cindie Frappollo's son, Paul, was among them.

Frappollo said that although she liked many aspects of the all-boys class, the presence of so many strong personalities changed Paul, 8, from a leader into a follower. "If you have a sensitive child who gets his feelings hurt, this is not the place your child needs to be, " she said. "If your child is all boy, this is the perfect spot."

While the boys' test scores haven't changed dramatically compared with boys in the coed third-grade class, Harvey said, she considers the year a success overall. Most impressive to her has been a dramatic drop in behavior referrals.

She thinks the decrease is due in part to her ability to understand boys better.

"I know now that when boys punch each other on the arm it doesn't mean they're getting ready to fight, " she said. "It's just their way of greeting each other."

* * *

Next door, in Steve Abernathy's brightly lit classroom, 18 third-grade girls sit at desks arranged in groups of threes and fours. He begins to explain an assignment that's part art project, part math lesson.

"Some of you are neatniks, " he says. "You want to line everything up. If you try to do that, you will fail at this."

As soon as Abernathy tells them they'll be looking through magazines to find numbers ending in zero or 5, and pasting them on a sheet of construction paper, questions begin:

"Hey, Mr. A, should we turn the paper lengthwise or widthwise?"

"Do we cut the numbers out or do we tear them out?"

"Can we use really small numbers, Mr. A?"

After five minutes of cutting and pasting, the girls begin comparing their numbers and discussing how they will build their collages. Abernathy finally asks one girl to stop talking and get to work.

"They're very perfection-oriented, " he says. "They want to do things correctly, while boys would just have at it and discuss the results later."

Abernathy had anticipated the tendency in girls to socialize and to be detail-oriented after reading single-gender research, which he says was pretty much on target. But like Harvey, he has come to realize not all children are cut out for a single-gender classroom.

"It's very good for girls who otherwise might blend into the background, " Abernathy said. "But I have some girls with strong personalities who could be intimidating."

He sees the single-gender class' greatest strength in its tendency to build confidence. Without boys, he said, many girls become brave enough to take risks.

Kris Cousineau, whose three sons attend mixed-gender classes at Belcher, has decided to place her daughter, Shannon, in single-gender first grade next year. While she wanted her sons to "become young gentlemen sensitive to the personalities of young ladies, " she wants Shannon to learn to stand up for herself and to excel in math and science.

She's not worried about Shannon's ability to get along with boys. "She already has three brothers at home, " Cousineau said. "She won't be missing out on anything."

* * *

Besides tracking test scores during the year, Belcher staff members enlisted the help of University of South Florida graduate students, who compared the rate of learning of children in single-gender and coed classes.

The expectation was that girls in the single-gender classes would improve in math at a faster rate than girls in the coed classes, and that boys in the single-gender classes would improve in reading at a faster rate than boys in the coed classes.

But USF researchers found no statistically significant increases for either group. That could be because children need to stay in single-gender classes longer before their rate of learning accelerates beyond that of their coed class peers, said USF doctoral candidate Rebecca Sarlo.

It also could indicate the children's self-concept - "I'm a girl, so I don't do well in math, " "I'm a boy, so I don't do well in reading" - already has become ingrained by the time they're in second and third grades, Sarlo said.

But the USF data did show differences in "customer satisfaction." In October and February, children in the single-gender classes reported liking school more than their coed class peers.

Abernathy thinks when kids are happy about coming to school, higher achievement naturally follows.

"My kids are saying, 'I'm going to miss school over the summer, ' " he said. "I'm telling them, 'Don't worry, there will be another 180 days of school next year.' "