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Single-sex middle school aims to divide and conquer

At Young Oak Kim Academy, students focus on science, math and technology in mixed-grade, single-gender classes. Teachers are still tweaking their methods to better reach each group.

November 29, 2009|By Amina Khan
  • Young Oak Kim Academy teacher Amber Green shows a group of sixth- and seventh-graders how to graph drawings of themselves using a photo booth program. Proponents of single-sex education argue that girls learn better through collaborative projects, while boys need more structure.
Young Oak Kim Academy teacher Amber Green shows a group of sixth- and seventh-graders… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Eleven weeks after opening, Los Angeles Unified's newest middle school still gleams. Science classrooms sport chemical eyewashes and emergency showers. Teachers deliver lessons in surround-sound with hands-free microphones. Kids play basketball on rooftop courts.

Yet what stands out most about Young Oak Kim Academy is that it is the district's only single-sex middle school. Classes are either all male or all female.

During "biology Jeopardy," the girls stood on tiptoe, quivering hands stretched to the ceiling, as science teacher Amber Green called out categories -- organelles for 200, types of cells for 500. For their four-person "edible cell" group projects, students pulled out their building materials -- licorice, jelly beans and other candies -- and after a brief buzz of consultation, each member heads to a computer or the supply closet to complete her assigned task.

In the next class, Green had the boys display their answers on whiteboards, but the noise level crescendoed, punctuated by students yelling "Shut up!" One boy danced down the aisle. When directed to start on their cell projects, some groups argued over their tasks, unaware the roles had already been assigned. Many had not brought materials for the project.

"Boys are impulsive," said science teacher Shambo Lerer. "Their hands go straight up. They ask questions like, 'What happens if a planet explodes?' "

Girls thrive in the collaborative atmosphere, Green said, while "the boys require a lot of classroom management."

"It's a learning curve, for us as well as them," she said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 affirmed the legality of single-sex instruction,said Leonard Sax of the National Assn. for Single Sex Public Education. Since then, the number of public schools nationwide with single-sex classrooms has shot up from 11 to 540.

David Brewer, L.A. Unified's former superintendent, pushed the idea of a single-sex school in the nation's second largest school system. Brewer expressed concern that young boys, particularly blacks and Latinos, were falling through the cracks in public education.

But single-sex schools face criticism from such groups as the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union, which recently filed a lawsuit against schools in Kentucky and Louisiana.

"We're very disturbed that school districts across the country are embracing the idea that boys and girls are so different that teachers need to treat them differently," said Emily Martin, deputy director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "Not only is that bad science, it really reduces opportunities that individual boys and individual girls will have in that class."

Sax said his group shares the ACLU's concerns. Without proper training, he said, "teachers start teaching algebra to girls with shopping analogies, and algebra to boys with sports analogies, and that reinforces stereotypes."

Edward Colacion, Kim Academy's principal and a former science teacher, said he signed on to build a school that prepares students for science, technology, engineering and math careers, not just a single-sex school.

Intended to relieve overcrowding at Berendo and Virgil middle schools, Kim has a diverse student body; the majority of its 760 pupils are Latino, but they are joined by Asians, Muslims and African Americans. Many of them could become the first in their families to attend college.

The academy aims for a holistic learning experience. All students attend an "advisory" class, a sort of homeroom, with the same teacher for all three years. While segregated by gender, each class is a mix of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

In the advisory class, students are encouraged to discuss their feelings -- unfamiliar ground for many young boys, whose "pack mentality" stamps emotion as a sign of weakness, Lerer said.

Breaking that culture has proven more difficult than expected, Lerer said. So the teachers took a different approach: staging a boys' intramural basketball tournament, grading them on teamwork and sportsmanship.

"Boys just need a purpose," said Christopher Norris, counselor and dean of the boys school. "If we could solve this -- how to manage all this adolescent male testosterone and support them on an emotional level -- then the academics will come."

While the school separates students along gender lines, teachers integrate them based on ability. The academy doesn't have an honors track, which Colacion called "just one way to measure kids' intelligences."

Instead, teachers focus on project-based learning, where students are assigned roles in a team, and graded based on the final product. Higher-performing students may feel like they're picking up their peers' slack, Colacion said, but unlike traditional lecture-based instruction, the system trains them to delegate tasks and hold teammates accountable.

"I love it," said Annie Clarke, who enrolled her son and daughter at Kim Academy. "The education is great, they pay attention to the kids here."

Seventh-grader Eric Alejo expressed irritation with the noise level in his classes. "We don't have a lot of time to finish our stuff," he said.

Aside from the dress code -- no skinny jeans, no colored undershirts -- sixth-grader Zaira Lemoli had no complaints. "It's cool, because you can pay attention more to the teachers without boys."

amina.khan@latimes.com

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