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Legislation To Expand Single-Sex Classrooms Stirs Debate

Gina Jordan
StateImpact Florida

A handful of public schools in Florida have either all-girls or all-boys classrooms. More could be coming.Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, is behind a bill that would have one school in districts throughout the state offer only single-sex classes. The proposed legislation would create a pilot project in designated districts for two years.

“With the idea that children all learn differently, this is a way that we can provide those parents -- that don’t have the resources to send their students to a private school or a parochial school that has a gender specific setting -- a local public school where they have access to it,” Diaz said.

A handful of public schools around the state already have single-sex classrooms.

The American Civil Liberties Union questions whether every school is following federal law, which requires that all children have access to equal educational programs.

In May of 2012, the ACLU sent a letter asking the Florida Department of Education to investigate whether those programs provide equal access.

The state chose not to look into it.

Now, the ACLU is campaigning against single-sex classes around the country.

“I don’t know that parents should have the opportunity to give their students an inferior education,” said ACLU strategist Allie Bohm. “Many of the programs are based on and perpetuate gender stereotypes, which limit opportunities for boys and girls alike.”

“That’s interesting because the research actually shows the opposite,” said Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist who directs the Center for Research on Girls at an all-girls private school in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She’s written several books on education and child development and says more opportunities exist for both sexes when they’re separated.

“If you put boys and girls in a classroom and you bring out science materials, consistently the boys will get their hands on those materials and start working with them and experimenting with them while the girls will stand in the background reading the instructions,” Damour said. “But if the boys are not in the classroom, the girls are the ones with their hands on the materials.”

She also says the boys are more likely to be interested in foreign languages and drama when girls are not around.

Students at Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy, a public middle school in Tampa, say they’ve been able to do more in an all-girl setting, not less

“I actually went to a coed school last year, and I find that there was a lot more drama at the coed schools,” said 7th grader Elena Postlewait.

8th grader Destiny Jackson says she’s grown from shy to outspoken.

“We’re able to go out and try new things and experiment with new sports and know that we can do the same things that boys can do,” Jackson said. “We don’t have to hold back because we’re thinking that we can’t do what boys can do.”

The National Association for Single Sex Public Education says students in gender specific classes score higher on standardized tests and are more likely to go to a 4 year college.

On the other hand, Science Magazine says there’s no good research showing better academic performance.

At Bond Elementary School in Tallahassee, where most of the kids are minorities from low-income families, 4th-grade teacher Brandon Clayton says the all male classes are about more than academics.

“There are some things that our students need educationally, but there are some things that they also need socially,” Clayton said. “I believe at the school it’s our job to do both.”

Clayton says he’s able to have conversations with the boys that wouldn’t happen in a coed environment -- about things like hygiene.

“You know, it’s nothing to walk into Mr. Dawson’s (2nd grade boys) class sometimes and it smell like corn chips and feet,” said Bond Principal Brandy Tyler-McIntosh. “But they’re learning. They’re engaged.”

Bond hopes to offer all-girls classes soon, too.

If the proposal in Tallahassee passes, the new schools would be open to anyone in the district. But parents could opt to send their kids elsewhere.

After two years, the state would look at whether or not the single sex schools are working.

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Gina Jordan reports from Tallahassee for WUSF and WLRN about how state policy affects your life.