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Published: Sunday, 9/21/2003

Will lessons learned in Seattle aid Toledo's single-sex schools?

BY SANDRA SVOBODA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE - With New York Yankees posters in one classroom and flowers and decorative bamboo shoots on a neighboring room's tables, fourth-grade classrooms at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School clearly appear to be “boy” and “girl.”

And when the pupils are at their desks, the gender stereotypes can perpetuate.

The boys talk to each other when they think their teacher won't notice - and sometimes when he will. They squirm in their seats. During a class last week, one boy hid a sports magazine from the teacher and read it behind a textbook. His classmates occasionally leaned over to peak at the glossy pages.

But 10-year-old Tr said he and his friends in this classroom are better behaved without the girls. “We get like, `oooooooh' when we sit by girls,” he said.

In the classroom next door, girls sit quietly. They write carefully. They almost always raise their hands to answer their teacher's questions without shouting out answers.

“It's fun 'cause there's no arguing with the boys,” said 10-year-old Andrea. “The boys talk a lot and the girls don't. They talk about the girls, and the girls get mad. That's probably why they separate us.”

The reasoning for beginning gender separation at Seattle's Thurgood Marshall school was actually almost as simple, school administrators said: remove distractions from teaching and learning that come with boy-girl interaction in academics.

“It's about getting more time on task,” Principal Winifred Todd said.

His 360 pupils now are being watched by single-sex school advocates who consider the school on the forefront of a national trend.

“I think [they] did everything right in Seattle,” said Leonard Sax, a physician and psychologist who is executive director of the Baltimore-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

“Kids want to learn. If you create an opportunity where it's the cool thing to do, they will surprise you,” he said. “I get so upset with people who say that girls can't learn computers or boys can't learn foreign language. They can. But you need to give them an opportunity. Very often that means in single-sex environments.”

Toledo Public Schools joined approximately 60 public schools utilizing single-gender instruction this fall when the former Stewart and Lincoln neighborhood elementary schools were converted to girls-only and boys-only academies, respectively. Both schools opened last month with near-capacity enrollments.

“We know we're being watched,” Stewart Principal William Keaton said.

Toledo's single-gender schools are a few weeks into their first school year. The Seattle school has separated at least some of its classes since 2000, the second year at the school under former principal Benjamin Wright.

“It was such a mess,” Mr. Wright said. “The kids had been suffering. The families had been suffering for a long time.”

He tried changing the curriculum, splitting pupils into smaller groups, and extending the school day by 30 minutes to improve education and test scores.

“That didn't solve the academic problems. It wasn't working. I needed larger changes,” Mr. Wright said.

Thurgood Marshall is a two-story building nestled just a few miles southeast of Seattle's downtown. Nearly 80 percent of students there - one of 60 elementary schools in the 47,000-student public system - qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because of low family income.

The 10-year-old Thurgood Marshall building also houses an autism unit and an English-Language Learning section. Students have art, physical education, library, and technology classes once a week.

Administrators, teachers, parents, and pupils say the single-gender Thurgood Marshall school is a success.

“It's definitely working out,” said Debra Mosby, an art teacher who previously taught first and second grade at the school.

“I haven't heard anything negative from it,” said Satina Sampson, a mother of two students at the school and a life-long resident of the area. “You get so much out of it.”

In an era when educational performance is measured by testing success, Thurgood Marshall's effort with single-gender education is working.

On the 1999 Washington Assessment of Student Learning test, the state's equivalent of Ohio's proficiency tests, no Thurgood Marshall pupils passed the math portion of the fourth-grade test. Only 7 percent passed reading and writing in 1998. In 2000, the statewide passing scores were up to nearly four times higher.

So during the 2000-2001 school year, Mr. Wright separated fourth graders. Scores rose dramatically in reading and writing.

They've continued to climb and this year exceeded the statewide results on math, writing, and reading.

Howard Cherry, a fourth-grade teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, collects workbooks from students in his all-male classroom in Seattle. Howard Cherry, a fourth-grade teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, collects workbooks from students in his all-male classroom in Seattle.
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While the overall fourth-grade scores have improved since the genders have been separated, both boys and girls made gains. In 2001, the first year test results were reported by gender, no girls passed the math test.

Last year, more than two-thirds of the girls posted a passing score on math, while reading and writing also improved from the 2001 results. Reading rose from 42 percent to 63 percent and writing increased from 37 percent to 58 percent this year.

The boys improved in the three subjects as well, with the most dramatic gains in math: from 18 percent in 2001 to 52 percent this year.

“The school was not performing and now it's outperforming almost all of the rest of the schools,” Mr. Wright said.

While the concept “separate but equal” is associated with past, now-illegal racist and sexist practices in schools, educational reformists are finding new policies and research for their support of gender separation to increase academic performance.

A provision of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 allowed school districts to establish single-gender schools and classrooms. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige last year formally sought public input on his plan to provide more flexibility for development of single-sex classes and schools.

According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, 58 public schools - elementary, middle, and high schools - in the United States have offered some option of single-sex education during the last few years. Some separate for certain subjects or in certain grades.

But just a handful have started the divisions at the elementary level in public schools. Only Toledo has separate elementary school buildings for boys and girls, and only Seattle's Thurgood Marshall divides pupils in all elementary grades.

Many school administrators are waiting for federal government efforts to issue more specific guidelines for single-gender education beyond what's stated in the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The Office for Civil Rights continues working on the regulations. There's no timeline for completion,” said Susan Aspey, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

Meanwhile, researchers are showing differences in development of boys and girls that beg for differences in classroom strategies, said Dr. Sax, who has a degree in medicine and a doctorate in psychology.

Dr. Sax has researched and written about developmental differences between boys and girls. A recent article published in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity chronicled dozens of other researchers' work that defines differences between boys and girls.

He cites simple, documented factors - for example, girls have better hearing than boys - as examples of gender issues that can translate into different, better teaching strategies for both boys and girls.

“The first thing you want to tell women teaching in boys' classrooms is, `You have to raise your voice. Remember, you're a woman. You hear much better than boys do,'” Dr. Sax said.

In addition, male teachers should be reminded that girls can perceive their raised, louder voices as angry yelling, he said.

Not only do girls mature faster than boys, he said, but their brains mature faster and they generally excel in the areas taught early in school: language acquisition and reading skills.

Dr. Sax believes these factors should be used to create different, gender-specific educational programs.

The inappropriateness of kindergarten and elementary school curricula to boys' abilities can begin a downward spiral, according to Dr. Sax. They begin to perceive that they are not high academic achievers, begin to dislike school, and discipline problems develop.

“It only takes a few months for these boys to figure out that school's a place where they are regarded as inferior, as less able, as less smart. Children don't like to feel that way,” he said.

Alarming and increasing gaps in achievement between boys and girls have been documented that have focused attention on boys' failings in school, educators across the country have said.

A 1995 U.S. Department of Education report found the “gap in reading proficiency between males and females is roughly equivalent to about one and half years of school” in favor of females.

A Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies report released earlier this year found men falling further behind women in earning college degrees.

“All of those different areas, they're all true,” said Cornelius Riordan, a professor of sociology at Providence College in Rhode Island who has studied and written books about single-gender education for more than a decade. “There's evidence of all of those.”

Single-gender education proponents cite improvements in student discipline, better student focus on academics, and the research showing physiological differences between boys' and girls' development as reasons why the separation strategy will pay off throughout a pupil's education.

Mr. Wright said the idea to introduce single-gender structure when he was principal at Thurgood Marshall “just came to me in the middle of the night. People don't believe that, but I'm serious.”

He talked to the fourth-grade teachers, then the parents, and in 2000-2001, fourth graders were separated. The next year, all six grades at the school were divided into boys' and girls' classrooms.

Special education teacher Kathie Newell, the teachers' union building representative and a 31-year veteran, said teachers have bought into gender separation even if they're not sure it's the reason for the school's recent successes.

“Is it the separation? Is it the uniforms? Is it because we have outstanding staff?” she said. “I think it's all of the above. That's my guess.”

Ms. Newell said teachers have continued to learn how to teach in their unique environment.

“I think it's kind of evolving. You just have to look and go along and tweak and adjust. I think we're still trying to find out what the criteria is for a strong teacher with each gender,” she said.

Some teachers hired during the last few years have requested to work at Thurgood Marshall because of the single-gender mindset, said Peter Moore, the physical education teacher.

He's teaching an increasing amount of individual sports, which he believes helps further the academic lessons of personal achievement without undue emphasis on the group.

For example, the gym's southern wall is covered with a climbing wall. Mr. Moore teaches pupils how to traverse the hand and footholds.

Resistant and unconfident at first, pupils can work at their own pace and set goals for how far and how quickly they can cross the gym.

“It allows them to really perform tasks in a way that gives them more self confidence,” Mr. Moore said.

One father, Mussa Mohamed, predicted that would be his daughter's future as she is the first in the family to attend school in the United States. Five-year-old Najma started at Thurgood Marshall this fall, speaking more Somali than English, Mr. Mohamed said.

He recently visited the school to talk to Najma's teacher about how to support learning at home, helping his daughter learn the new alphabet and numeric system.

He said he was pleased to see her in an all-girls classroom.

“I think it's a good idea,” he said. “They will have more access to their learning. I think it's less problematic.”

When Ethiopia native Getachew Yirdaw moved into the area during the summer, he didn't know about Thurgood Marshall's gender separation. When he enrolled his son and daughter, he was happy to learn about the policy. He's seen his third-grade daughter and kindergarten-age son develop differently and believes instruction in school can support those differences.

“I think that they need different environments,” Mr. Yirdaw said. “They do behave differently.”



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