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Community Thread: How Is Duval's Single-Gender School Pilot Going?

Ryan Benk

WJCT’s Community Thread project invites listeners to submit questions about topics that affect all of us. It started with a TV show on public schools in November. Now, our WJCT News reporters are working to answer questions that didn’t make it on the show.

This one comes from Vickie Robinson. She wants to know: How successful is Duval County’s pilot program for single-gender learning at Butler Middle School? And does the district plan to expand single-gender learning to high schools?

A classroom of plaid uniform-clad girls are reciting the Young Women’s Leadership Academy pledge just after lunch. This kind of discipline wasn’t always the norm at Butler, says women’s academy principal Tamara Williams.

“Eugene Butler is very rich in history. It was a high school and then it was transitioned into a middle school,” she says.

She says Eugene Butler High was struggling academically and behaviorally for some time, and that was leading to a mass exodus of students.

“The academic data of course declining, the superintendent felt that we needed to do something to kind of revitalize Eugene Butler,” she says.

Two years ago the district converted it into a middle school and then separated students by gender. Different principals lead different faculty and students under the same roof.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says a short time has made a huge difference.

“You’re seeing fewer suspensions, fewer infractions, fewer disruptions in the classroom and fewer arrests with, really, the same type of child that was educated only a couple years ago at the school,” he says.

Academically speaking, Vitti says Butler is doing better than many urban schools, in part, he says, because at-risk kids do better without the added distraction of the opposite sex.

But research on that has reached varied conclusions, says Matthew Ohlson, an educational leadership professor at the University of North Florida.

“In some cases what they’re seeing is ups and downs in terms of those outcomes,” Ohlson says.

Single-gender learning has a negligible impact on academic performance, he says. But it might play a role in improving behavior.

“It goes beyond just having a single-gender setting. It’s the instructional practice, but also what are you doing in terms of the collaborative school culture? How are you promoting the success of students? Are you celebrating their gains?” Ohlson says.

Ohlson says he’d like to see more research into single-gender learning that takes other factors into account.  

And at the end of the school day, he says, it’s all about catering to the individual student.

Vitti agrees. He says he understands single-gender schools aren't for everyone and believes they should be one of many options.

Vitti says he hopes to phase in a single-gender high school one grade level at a time, starting as early as next year. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.