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Momentum Picks Up for Single-Sex Schools

In Public Section, the Early Reports Show Promise

NEW YORK, JUNE 22, 2002 ( Moves are under way in the United States to extend single-sex schools to the public sector.

In January $3 million in experimental funding for single-sex schools was approved and in May the government published a regulation change requiring the Education Department to review federal laws and inform school districts how they could spend legally money on single-sex education.

“The use of single-sex classes and schools can reflect important and legitimate efforts to improve educational outcomes for all students,” said the note published in the Federal Register.

Opinion is divided over the issue. Supporters of separating the sexes contend that some boys and girls learn better without the distractions of the opposite sex in the classroom. Critics argue that single-sex schools do little to resolve education problems.

“It is not the single-sex schools per se that make boys and girls succeed, but all the same elements that make boys and girls succeed in schools where they are together, like a sense of community, good discipline and adequate resources,” Nancy Zirkin, of the American Association of University Women, was quoted as saying in the New York Times of May 9.

Support for single-sex schools crosses political-party lines. In the U.S. Senate, defenders range from a Texas Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison, to Democrats such as Hillary Clinton of New York and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

The Associated Press, citing Leonard Sax, heads of the National Association for the Advancement of Single Sex Public Education, reported May 8 that 10 single-sex public schools exist now, with two more expected to open this fall.

One of these is The Young Women´s Leadership School, in the Harlem section of New York. Students come from both rich and poor families, almost all of whom are black, Asian or Hispanic. The school, which has 370 students, has a waiting list of 1,200 for three ninth-grade slots.

Since 1972, the civil rights statute regulating education, known as Title IX, forbids public school districts from discriminating on the basis of sex. Some school districts have gotten around that by creating separate and essentially equal schools for both boys and girls. Others, such as the Harlem school, have operated with the blessings of local officials, who admire its improved performance and who have essentially dared the federal government to close them down, AP said.

One supporter of separating the sexes is Karen Stabiner, who has just spent three years working on a book, “All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters.” Due to be published in August, it is based on two all-girls schools, the private Marlborough School in Los Angeles, and the Harlem school.

“Single-sex education is not the answer to everyone´s prayers,” Stabiner wrote in the Washington Post of May 12. But it “can be a valuable tool — if we target those students who stand to benefit most,” she insisted.

Stabiner noted the difference between New York public schools, where half of the students fail to graduate in time and almost a third never graduate, to the record at the Harlem school. Most of the members the Harlem school´s two graduating classes have gone on to four-year colleges, often the first members of their families to do so.

Other countries´ experience

In Spain, education laws don´t prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, so single-sex schools are allowed, the newspaper El País reported May 30. Such schools for now are limited to the private sector. Recently there was a move to change the law, to have the schools declared discriminatory. The State Council for Education, however, voted to maintain the current statutes.

In Italy, Education Minister Letizia Moratti has ruled out the possibility of single-sex education in the public sector, saying the time was not right, the newspaper Corriere della Sera reported May 11. But she said the question will be studied further. Italy ended single-sex public schooling in 1963. The government is now considering ways to restructure the education system.

In Australia, the New South Wales state government is experimenting with single-sex classes in an attempt to improve the academic performance of boys. According to the Sun-Herald on April 21, the head of a national inquiry into boys education, Kerry Bartlett, visited Griffith Public School and said the classes showed promise. Pupils in Year 5 at Griffith are in the second year of a two-year trial, having separate classes in the morning and rejoining for lessons in the afternoon.

And in Canada a group has announced it would try to establish an all-girls public school with a twist — it would be based on a feminist curriculum. A group of Calgary parents fear their daughters are paying more attention to boys than to schoolwork, the National Post reported Feb. 12.

Giving girls their own school is the best way to avoid the loss of self-esteem that often occurs when girls reach puberty, said Liz LoVecchio, a former Calgary school board trustee acting as a spokeswoman for the parents. More than 100 parents signed a proposal to establish a new facility for girls in grades four through seven. Subsequent grades would be added later if the plan is accepted.

Classes at the new school would bring “successful” female professionals into the classroom to talk about their jobs. They would also teach history from a woman´s perspective, examine the media´s effect on a girl´s self-image, and teach the importance of female friendships.

Support for separating boys and girls came from a study just published in England. According to a May 31 report in the Telegraph, teen-age girls and boys prefer being taught in single-sex classes, and they tend to work harder and do better in examinations.

These results came from a four-year study at a leading coeducational comprehensive school, Comberton Village College. The school decided to introduce single-sex lessons in English for its Year 9 pupils (ages 13 and 14) in an effort to boost the performance of boys. After four years, the difference between the proportions of girls and boys reaching Level Five in the national tests for 14-year-olds had been reduced to 4%, compared with 17% nationally.

That study confirms results published earlier in Scotland. On Jan. 16 the Scotsman newspaper reported that researchers at Stirling University said segregated lessons brought benefits for boys and girls.

Josephine Airnes, the report´s author, said boys did not think a single-sex environment was advantageous, even though their academic performance improved when taught on their own. A majority of girls in the study felt a single-sex environment was advantageous.

The Chicago Tribune summed up the issue in a May 31 editorial: “The fact that single-sex education is not for everybody doesn´t mean it shouldn´t be available to anybody. Given the many shortcomings of American education, there is little to lose from trying a variety of possible remedies.”

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