Separated by gender: Middle schools test strategies to reach students during critical years

By CHRISTINA COOKE
The Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 5, 2007
Staff Photos by Dan Henry

Ooltewah Middle sixth-grader Price McGinnis feels differently about girls than he did last year. When he gets around girls at school, he said, he feels a weird combination of nervousness and happiness.

“When you’re talking to girls, you’re pretty much flirting,” said Price, 12, who has a girlfriend he sees at church on Wednesdays and Sundays. “It was like that a little bit in fifth grade, but it really hit in sixth grade.”

In an attempt to eliminate the distraction of the opposite sex and help students learn with strategies that work for their gender, several schools are piloting all-boy and all-girl classes.

The effort is part of the Middle Schools for a New Society reform initiative, paid for by a four-year, $6 million grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation.

Middle school is a tough time, educators agree, because children’s bodies and minds are changing rapidly as they transition to young adulthood. It is a critical period, as well, because it’s when students either buy into school and get on track for higher education or disengage. Boys struggle most through the developmental changes, many said.

“Middle school is almost universally agreed to be among the most difficult years in a child’s schooling,” said Jack Murrah, president of the Lyndhurst Foundation. “Those are years in a student’s educational development that sometimes make teachers pull their hair out trying to figure out what works.”

With the help of the Lyndhurst grant money, educators are trying to reach the roughly 11,000 students in Hamilton County’s public middle schools with a variety of strategies — from offering more teacher training to creating alternative schedules for certain students to grouping students by gender.

Expanding on a program piloted in the sixth grade last year, 21st Century Academy’s middle school moved to all same-sex classes in all grades this year. Ooltewah Middle has offered math and language arts in same-sex classes since August, and Orchard Knob Middle started offering same-sex language arts, science and social studies classes in January.

Because the little research that exists on single-sex education is not conclusive about its effectiveness, educators here have to find out for themselves whether it works, Mr. Murrah said.

“I don’t think it’s the right way; I don’t think it’s the wrong way,” Mr. Murrah said. “I think it’s one way to educate people at that age. We have to try these things to see if they make a positive difference.”

THOUGHTS FROM THE CLASSROOM

Ooltewah Middle language arts teacher Stephanie Knox said she, at least, is convinced that same-sex classes are effective.

“I love it because of the focus I get from the kids in the all-boys and all-girls classes,” she said. “Everyone is more comfortable and at ease.” In addition, she said, she can teach students using material that interests them and methods that catch their attention. Around the tables at Ms. Knox’s sixth-grade class on Thursday, boys worked in pairs to read biographies of athletes from Sports Illustrated for Kids.

Harrison Warren and Alex- ander Smith, both 12, pored over an article about soccer star Freddy Adu, then discussed what they’d read and filled out a graphic organizer.

“We do more stuff guys like than girls like,” Harrison said of being able to read sports articles or Zorro graphic novels. “I read better when I read stuff I’m interested in.”

Victoria Karnauch, 12, who has Ms. Knox for an all-girls language arts class later in the day, said she loves the gender- specific classes, as well.

“We can talk about different things and know each other better,” she said. “We can talk about boys if we want.”

Many students also said they feel less pressure to perform when surrounded by members of their sex.

“I feel more comfortable with boys because I can relate to boys,” said Orchard Knob Middle eighth-grader Tavron Hughes, 14, whose grades have improved in the classes where he is surround- ed by just males. “With girls, you can have trouble.”

But Helen Walton, who teaches all-girls and all-boys language arts classes at Orchard Knob Middle, isn’t sold on the idea. As Ms. Walton played an audio recording of Will Hobbs’ “Crossing the Wire” for a class of 20 eighth-grade boys Friday morning, some followed along in their copy of the book while others lay their heads on their desks.

“I can’t see they’re grasping more by being separated,” Ms. Walton said. “I don’t think there’s a workplace in our society that has all men or all women. They need to mingle with one another so they can see how each other function.”

THE PRINCIPALS’ SAY

Principal Mary Lewis at 21st Century Academy said while dividing students all day, every day has proven successful for most students academically, it is socially a little tricky.

“We do see in the hallway an increased interaction (between boys and girls),” Dr. Lewis said. “They’re eager to talk to each other, and the hallway is not as supervised as the classroom.”

Next year, the school most likely will keep students separated by gender in their core classes, but bring them together for electives, she said.

Ooltewah Middle principal Pam Dantzler said she has been surprised by how quickly the same-sex classes produced positive changes.

She has received no discipline referrals out of any of the six gender-based classes, though the same students in other classes sometimes misbehave, she said. And while the girls’ performance has remained about even, the boys are receiving higher grades in the same-sex reading and math classes, she said.

Though the school plans to tweak some of the other reforms it’s trying this year, “this is on the keeper list,” Ms. Dantzler said of the gender-based classes.

About two months into the pilot program, Orchard Knob Middle principal Herbert McCray said based on his prior experience as a teacher of single-sex classes, he’s hopeful the strategy will work at his school.

“This being the baseline year for single-gender classes, we can go back, reflect, throw out what isn’t working and keep things that are,” Mr. McCray said.

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