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Single-sex classes on a forward course

More schools in L.A. and across the nation separate boys and girls. New federal guidelines extend the leeway.

November 20, 2006|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

The problem posed in Mrs. Pfeiffer's seventh-grade prealgebra class at Campbell Hall is seasonal: How much turkey is needed to serve 30 people if each person gets 2/5 of a pound? Hands shoot up, with an "ooh, ooh!" here and a quizzical look there.

It appears to be a typical math class on the tree-lined campus of the private North Hollywood coed school, except for one thing: There are only boys in the room. The all-girls math class will meet a few hours later. For more than eight years, Campbell Hall has separated the 250 boys and girls in seventh- and eighth-grade math; this fall, for the first time, the school is doing the same with science class. Students benefit because they are less distracted by the opposite sex, said math teacher Michelle Pfeiffer, and instruction can be tailored to the different learning styles of boys and girls.

"We can express ourselves better," said Brett Landsberger, 12, a Campbell Hall seventh-grader. "It's like boys are a different species. You walk by the girls classes and they're sitting there all perfect, and you go into the boys class and they're all over the floor."

Single-sex classes and schools -- both public and private -- are gaining favor across the nation as educators search for ways to boost test scores and students' self-esteem. In 1995, only three public schools in the nation offered a single-sex option, compared with more than 253 today, according to the National Assn. for Single Sex Public Education. Five percent of private schools are single-sex.

In Los Angeles, a new girls-only public charter school opened this fall. Another newly opened charter school in Lincoln Heights has launched one of the first formal experiments in single-sex education, creating separate boys and girls classes with plans to study their test scores, classroom behavior and other achievement yardsticks.

Research has long suggested that girls in coed settings defer to boys and receive less attention from teachers. Other educators cite more recent evidence that boys, especially low-income minority youths, might benefit as well. The gap between girls' and boys' test scores has decreased, and girls are applying in higher numbers to college and now obtain more bachelor's degrees than boys.

A recent ruling by the U.S. Department of Education giving public schools more leeway to offer single-sex curricula will probably accelerate the move toward single-sex classrooms, experts said. Previous rules generally banned single-sex classes, with some exceptions.

The new guidelines, scheduled to take effect Friday, permit single-sex education in public schools but must be geared toward improving achievement, providing diverse experiences or meeting the particular needs of students. Programs must treat male and female students evenhandedly and offer substantially equal coeducational classes in the same subject. Enrollment must be voluntary.

"We're already seeing schools respond to the amended regulations," said Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst with the Education Sector, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "There's a lot of public support for at least the notion of single-sex schooling."

That support reflects a wave of enthusiasm for greater school choice overall as policymakers, parents and educators struggle to reform an education system that has left American students frequently lagging behind their international peers. The federal No Child Left Behind Act endorsed same-sex programs as an "innovative" practice.

But gender separation is controversial. Critics contend the practice is a slide backward, one that could reinforce stereotypes and lead to different and unequal classroom experiences.

The American Assn. of University Women argues that there is little evidence that girls and boys do better apart. Better-funded schools with more focused academic instruction, smaller class sizes and qualified teachers are far more likely to influence learning, said research director Catherine Hill.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued a Louisiana junior high school last summer over its plan to separate girls and boys, arguing that it violated Title IX regulations that require gender equity in educational programs that receive federal funding. The complaint against the Livingston Parish School Board cited statements that girls would be taught "good character" while boys would be taught about "heroic" behavior. The school board dropped the plan.

But such arguments have failed to sway those educators who believe there is much to gain and little to lose in experimenting with same-gender education. They point to a growing body of findings -- albeit disputed -- that boys' and girls' brains function and develop in different ways. Boys, the theory goes, do better in competitive, action-based, team-oriented tasks, while girls thrive in a more relaxed environment, working in pairs or alone.

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