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January 16, 2008

Single-sex schools grow in popularity

By Jennifer McDonald
C & G Staff Writer

Some local schools say girls and boys learn differently

Many researchers and educators agree that boys and girls learn differently and that single-sex education can help students perform better.

While the idea of separating boys and girls isn’t new, the reasoning behind the division of sexes in an educational setting has changed in the last few years, said Margaret Richardson, director of the International Center for Integral Formation.

No longer are boys and girls separated merely because of their possible attraction to one another, Richardson said, but because growing research shows that by offering classes within a single-sex setting, many students are provided with better learning opportunities.

“A lot of times, people will think we are Catholic schools and it’s the old way. But that’s not the case. There is certainly the element of reducing that for boys and girls, but that is a very minor piece of it. We wouldn’t separate them specifically for the reason of separating,” Richardson said.  “What we see is it does make a difference in the classroom.”

Based in Atlanta, ICIF provides curriculum to an international network of Catholic schools and universities.

“We’re not saying that every boy learns differently than every girl, but instead, we have to recognize gender when we develop educational programs for our students.”

Many Catholic, charter and private schools have followed this fashion for years, but the trend has surged within public schools as well, after the U.S. Department of Education implemented new regulations in 2006 that allow public school districts to create single-sex schools and classes.

As of November 2007, more than 366 public schools in the U.S. offered single-sex educational, up from four in 1998, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

This number includes Wolfe Middle School in the Center Line Public Schools district. 

Of the 200 sixth-graders enrolled at Wolfe, about 100 are enrolled in math, social studies, science and language arts gender team courses, Principal Amy Maruca said.

“What happened is our eighth- and ninth-grade students were essentially not performing the way we’d like to see them perform,” Maruca said. “That’s not just a Center Line problem, that’s a national trend. So we started to ask, ‘What should we be looking at to make a change?’”

Gender team courses were introduced during the fall of 2007 for sixth-graders at Wolfe. Each student was pre-tested and will be re-tested at the end of the year to determine if the gender team classes are having the desired effect.

“There is research out there that says, specifically at the middle school age, there’s a lot of big social dynamics between boys and girls going on. They’re starting to notice one another and that sets off all kinds of things,” Maruca said. “Girls don’t want to look too smart in front of the boys, and sometimes the boys are intimidated, especially in language arts, when they don’t want to read what they wrote in front of girls.

“Getting rid of those stressors might be helpful in getting them to concentrate on academics and getting them solidly prepared for eighth- and ninth-grade.”

Everest Academy in Clarkston decided to open a new Everest Catholic High School in the fall of 2008. The academy, which opened in 1991, offers co-ed education for preschool through second-grade and gender-specific education for grades three through eight. For the 2008-2009 school year, their new high school will offer gender-specific ninth-grade, with additional grades added each successive year, Director of Admissions Maura Plante said.

“Because we are single-gender, we can see all of the benefits it has,” Plante said.

Everest Academy will host an open house for their new high school Sunday, Feb. 10, staring at 1 p.m. Leonard Sax with the NASSPE will be a featured guest, Plante said.

“Our students are flourishing in the single-gender environment, and our parents are thrilled,” Plante said. “We just felt we needed to give our families that single-gender option at the different school levels.”

Some researchers claim that the brains of girls and boys develop along different trajectories. NASSPE says these differences are genetically programmed and are present at birth, while other differences manifest later in childhood.

Because of these differences, some researchers and educators believe girls and boys learn in subtly different ways and that it’s better to teach them in different environments.

This holds true for Patrick Adams, principal of De La Salle Collegiate High School in Warren. The goal of the college preparatory Catholic high school is to encourage students to realize their full potential and become men of great character, morality and faith, he said.

“I think research will tell you, and I concur, that boys and girls are different,” Adams said. “I think the rate of maturity in a young male is far slower than with a young female. If you’re going to have that big disparity in maturity level at the same grade level, it speaks a lot about dynamics that can negatively affect learning.”

Single-sex classrooms can also break down gender stereotypes, Adams said, where girls are more likely to take classes in math, science and information technology, while boys will more likely pursue interests in art, music, drama and foreign languages. 

“I’ve been at both types of schools as a teacher, as a coach and as an administrator, and I think that both have their redeeming qualities,” Adams said. “I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer. I don’t believe that either single-sex or co-ed schools are best, hands down.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jennifer McDonald at jmcdonald@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1112.