Practically Speaking

Kyle and her husband moved to Brookfield in 1986. She became active in local politics and started blogging in 2004. Her focus is primarily on local issues but often includes state and national topics, too. Kyle looks at things from the taxpayers' perspective in a creative, yet down to earth way, addressing them from a practical point of view.

All girls, all boys?


Trying new school of thought

Public districts experiment with separating students by gender

Posted: April 29, 2008

Reduce it to a yes or no answer - was it a good idea for you to be in a class that was all girls this year? Who says yes?

Twenty-six hands shoot into the air. A 27th joins with hesitation.

And that is every student present in this eighth-grade classroom at the Milwaukee Education Center, known as MEC, a Milwaukee Public Schools middle school in an old Schlitz Brewery building north of downtown.

Note the word public in the previous sentence.

Single-sex education has long been part of the private school scene in Milwaukee and nationwide. But single-sex classes in public schools are relatively new.

Still few in number, they are on the rise in much of the country, spurred by parent interest and rulings from the U.S. Department of Education in 2006 that, with limitations, gave the practice a green light. As of November, 366 public schools in the United States offered some or all of their classes separated by gender, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

The idea is controversial. Research is nowhere near a consensus on the results, and many people, including experts, have strong opinions on issues such as whether boys and girls learn in different ways and to what degree children behave differently without members of the other gender present.

But single-sex classes are beginning to pop up in public schools in the Milwaukee area. Kennedy Middle School in Germantown has had boys-only classes since 2001; a pilot program at Arrowhead High School in the Town of Merton is in its second year, with plans to grow; John Long Middle School in Grafton offered an all-boys class a year ago but not this year; and Shalom High School is an all-girls alternative program part of the MPS system.

MEC quietly joined the list this year, deciding to offer separate classes as a pilot project, with approval to be sought from the School Board in the next couple of months for continuing it next year.

It is the first time a mainstream MPS school has offered such classes. A year ago, School Board member Jeff Spence proposed that MPS offer single-sex options, and the board invited schools to propose that. MEC was the only school to respond, said Aquine Jackson, the MPS administrator overseeing the subject.

Demand, enthusiasm high

As appears to be true in many schools that offer single-sex classes, enthusiasm is high at MEC.

Principal Jesse Rodriguez said interest was overwhelming when the possibility emerged from discussions within the school a year ago. Participation is voluntary, but "we have too many requests and not enough seats" to accommodate parents who want the option for their children, he said.

"They see it as a more structured system for their little one, and they're looking for that," he said. Both the academic and social sides of keeping the genders apart appeal to parents, he said.

The school grouped three of its eighth-grade classes and designated one for boys, one for girls and one co-ed. The same teachers work with all three classes. Students are not separated by sex for lunch or other school activities.

Rodriguez said he will pull together data at the end of the school year to see if there are any differences between single-sex and conventional classes. Anecdotally, the results have been "very, very positive," he said. More than two-thirds of the students in the two single-sex classes are on the school's honor roll, a much higher percentage than the school average.

Latanza Franklin, 14, who is taking part in the trial run, said she thought girls get along better in class without boys present. "I think it's a better learning environment," she said, with no one showing off for boys.

"We have drama and stuff, but we're still learning better without the boys," agreed Ebony Spinks, 14.

Sierra Wilson, 13, said her grade-point average was up sharply this year, and she thought that was largely because she was focusing more on classwork without boys around. "The females participate more without the boys," she said.

Three MEC boys said if their class were asked to vote on whether it had been good to learn without girls in the room, the vote would have been fairly evenly split, probably leaning toward yes.

The boys were not as enthusiastic as the girls who were interviewed but agreed there were upsides.

"There's less distractions," said Dieudonne Lo, 14. "If the girls aren't in the room, it's like, who's there to impress?"

Robert Haskins, 13, said: "We're boys, and we're growing, and we have the ability to think of girls, and that might take our attention away from education."

All nine students interviewed said they were planning to go to co-ed high schools next year.

Tim Trzcinko, who teaches reading and science, said he uses some different strategies for the boys' and girls' classes. On the whole, there is more teamwork and cooperation among the girls and more competition and a desire to get things done quickly among the boys, he said.

Both he and Patricia Bent, who teaches math, said they thought the students benefited from the separation.

Classes called productive

At Kennedy Middle School in Germantown, it's been seven years since boys-only classes were offered in reading and social studies. The option arose in discussions of what to do to respond to a concentration of boys who were not doing as well as expected, Principal Steve Bold said.

He called the classes "very productive" and said the setting had increased confidence among boys and given them more of a sense of belonging in school.

One all-boys class with 22 or 23 students is offered in each grade, Bold said. There are about 300 students in the school in each grade.

The single-sex option at Arrowhead High School involves classes for biology and English. Next school year, the school's south campus, for freshmen and sophomores, is expanding the number of single-sex classes, particularly those for girls only, South Principal Gregg Wieczorek said. It's also is looking to offer geometry in girls- and boys-only sections.

The school's north campus, which serves students in the two highest grades, also is looking to get in on the act, North Principal Bonnie Laugerman said, by offering single-sex English classes and girls-only chemistry.

But whether the experiment will grow beyond that is doubtful, Wieczorek said, because there are only so many courses for which Arrowhead has enough sections to do so.

Interest has been higher with girls, he said.

"Every teacher that's really been involved with it has claimed or said to me that . . . (it) has helped their teaching for everybody," Wieczorek said.

John Long Middle School in Grafton took advantage of a large class of boys coming through eighth grade last school year, grouping a classroom of boys for science, math and literacy courses.

Since then, the male-female ratio has evened out and a new principal has joined the school, Grafton Superintendent Jeff Pechura said. The option was not offered this year, but Pechura said it might come up again.

From the April 30, 2008 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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