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StateImpact: Single Sex Classes

AdmissionsQuest via Flickr

A handful of public schools in Florida have either all-girls or all-boys classrooms.  More could be coming. A bill filed in Tallahassee would create a pilot program for single sex classes in designated districts.

The bill’s sponsors say they want to encourage diverse educational opportunities, while opponents argue that academic outcomes are no better – and kids are subject to gender stereotypes.In Miss Holland’s class at Bond Elementary in Tallahassee, students are in small groups reading or working on the computers. The only female in the classroom is the teacher.

“What is the word again?" Holland asks a group of boys sitting around a small table. "Leaky," the boys reply.

"What would be the word without the Y?" "Leak."

Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz wants to see more classes like this. He’s introduced a bill that would have one school in districts throughout the state offer only single sex classes.

“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.

The ACLU doesn't see it that way.

"I don’t know that parents should have the opportunity to give their students an inferior education,” said ACLU strategist Allie Bohm.

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

“You know, many of the programs are based on and perpetuate gender stereotypes, which limit opportunities for boys and girls alike,” Bohm said.

“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, OH. She's written several books on education and child development. Damour 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.

“We are strong, confident young women..."

The students at Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy, a public middle school in Tampa, recite their school creed every morning.

“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.

Elena and her friends say they’ve been able to do more in an all-girl setting, not less.

“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," said 8th grader Destiny Jackson. "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, where most of the kids are minorities from low-income families, fourth-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.

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