Should Boys and Girls Be Taught Separately?

updated 01/30/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/30/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

At Woodward Avenue Elementary School in DeLand, Fla., Deborah Roberts's fifth-grade class is abuzz with hectic energy. Boys are spread all over the place, milling around, sitting cross-legged on the floor, shouting. One thing is missing: girls. They're across the hall, in Jessica Stromberg's class, where the atmosphere is orderly, even subdued. Facing each other in groups of four desks, the girls help each other answer questions about Newton's laws of physics. “What can we tell each other about that experiment?” Stromberg asks.

Woodward is on the leading edge of a new trend: the single-sex classroom. Long a cornerstone of parochial education, the single-sex class in public schools is gaining steam, fueled by research that suggests differences in the ways boys and girls learn. “It's helpful to teach them in ways that understand those differences, which are hardwired,” says Dr. Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. “Most boys learn better standing up. Most girls learn better sitting down.”

Today there are more than 160 co-ed public schools around the country with a single-gender option—up from 27 four years ago, Sax's group estimates. (No federal statistics exist.) At 716- student Woodward, parents have enrolled 162 children in single-gender classes for core subjects on a voluntary basis. Boys and girls still have ample time to mix—at lunch, gym and in arts classes. Required to meet the same standards, the classes offer a study in contrasts. When Roberts recently taught a history lesson on the Alamo, the boys “got out of their chairs and pretended to shoot an imaginary enemy.” In Stromberg's girls' class, a lesson on the Holocaust consisted of reading about a Jewish girl during the war and talking about “how they would feel if it happened to them.”

Woodward's year-old program has gotten results: Kids in single-gender classes outscored their co-ed counterparts on standardized tests, though school officials say smaller class sizes and extra-motivated students and teachers could help explain the gap. Then there's customer satisfaction. “I like it loud and that I can move around,” says 10-year-old Austin Cox. Classmate Alex Santiago's mother, Ilsa, says her son is “more focused” now. On the girls' side, Cagney Wilson, 11, feels more confident: “We're learning we can do whatever we want.” Her mom, Dionne, says Cagney “is so excited about science now, I can hardly believe it.”

Perhaps, but some feminist groups, including the National Organization for Women, oppose publicly funded gender segregation, arguing that it promotes inequality and stereotypes. “I find it very troubling,” says NOW president Kim Gandy. “We know that the all-boy math class will quickly become the real math class. It's not a healthy dynamic.” Adds Susan McGee Bailey, executive director of Wellesley College's Centers for Women: “By assuming all boys are X and all girls Y, we're shortchanging students similar to the opposite sex in interests and abilities.” Many parents—and students—still think the pros of a mixed-gender class outweigh the cons: At Pueblo, Colo.'s Roncalli Middle School, which started offering single-gender classes this school year, Rachel Cesario prefers that her daughter Nevada, 12, a sixth grader, experience the rough and tumble of a co-ed class. “She has learned to stand up for herself,” Cesario says.

Still, teachers say that for most kids, separation can be liberating—especially once hormones kick in—freeing kids from distractions and sex-role expectations. “We do plays with female parts, like Pride and Prejudice, and the boys … change their voices,” says Terri Pacheco, who teaches a boys-only sixth-grade class at Roncalli. “They don't have to prove anything to the girls.” Con versely, “I see my girls aren't too worried about primping; the lip gloss and hairbrushes aren't coming out,” says Roncalli language-arts teacher Lisa Aragon.

Only time, test scores and experience will tell whether the single-gender class is here to stay or just a passing educational fad. Roncalli counselor Michael Horton says the approach elicited criticism—from none other than his son Nick, 19, who, Horton recalls, pointedly asked, “What's the point of going to school if you can't be around girls?”

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