Despite successes, same-sex classes generate debate In Baltimore, concept is 'very experimental'

July 19, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

On an August morning eight years ago, a hot-tempered little boy met the teacher who would change his life.

The two were brought together at a West Baltimore school, where the teacher had signed on to a fledgling experiment in education designed to give minority boys a boost in school.

The experiment's simple premise was to divide children by gender after the morning bell and see whether they might learn better.

Today, that hot-tempered child, Kamian Vaughn, is a 16-year-old honor roll regular, a hard-working summer employee for the city and a confident young man dreaming of college and medical school. Kamian, a handsome youth with a quick smile, credits his former teacher, Richard Boyton, and three years in an all-boys classroom with making the difference.

In spite of apparent success stories like Kamian's, Baltimore schools have no concrete statistics on the effectiveness of same-sex classrooms. And some controversy continues to surround the idea of single-gender classes.

Nevertheless, educators continue to support the classes as safety nets for at-risk youths, and the number of Baltimore schools trying them is increasing.

Baltimore's single-sex classroom experiment was launched in 1987 when Leah Goldsborough-Hasty, the longtime principal of Matthew A. Henson Elementary, noticed a disturbing trend at her all-black west-side school.

Boys who were growing up in troubled homes on troubled streets were struggling in school. They read far below average. They solved math problems at a level behind their female peers. And they were consistently flunking, some having been held back twice by the third grade.

'Promising little boys'

"These were promising little boys who were giving up because they believed they already had been written off anyway," Goldsborough-Hasty said. "A lot of our black boys were living in communities where there were no longer good male role models around. They still are. So the idea of single-sex classes is to get these little boys into classes where they can find positive black male role models."

When Kamian, who was in one of the city's first all-boys classes, looks back on third, fourth and fifth grades, his experiences reflect just what Goldsborough-Hasty intended.

Kamian said of his former teacher: "Right away, he was like a father figure. It was like I had two dads: one at home and one at school."

The all-boys class gave Kamian the structure and discipline. "Everything has been beautiful since that class," said Kamian's mother, Brenda Acker. "I really saw that as the turning point."

Though no official count has been taken, the city school board estimates there are dozens of single-sex classrooms around the city, and more are being added for the next school year. With another school year over, some Baltimore educators are evaluating the success of these classrooms.

"I've got to tell you, we are seeing a real difference with these classes," said Goldye Sanders, principal at Harford Heights Elementary School, which had three all-girls and two all-boys classes last year. "It's to the point where parents are coming to us and requesting their children be placed in these classes."

Harford Heights is adding another all-boys class this fall.

Dramatic results

Sanders said the results from the classrooms are dramatic.

"Most obviously, we're seeing that the all-boys classes are consistently scoring higher on reading aptitude tests," she said. "And the girls are tending to excel more in areas of math and leadership."

But national results are not as clear-cut. The experts remain divided about whether single-sex classrooms really help -- or harm -- America's youth.

According to one study, African-American and Hispanic students single-sex classes outperformed their peers by almost a grade level. In Detroit, seventh-grade boys in single-sex classes had the highest math scores in the city and the second-highest in the state. In East Harlem, 90 percent of girls who attend single-sex classes scored at or above grade level in math, compared with 50 percent citywide.

But at the same time, the American Association of University Women reports that boys and girls thrive wherever the elements of good education are present -- whether the classes are single-sex or coeducational. The group's 1992 study concluded the components of a good education were as simple as having small classes and a focused curriculum.

'It's hit and miss'

"I guess the research shows that it's hit and miss when it comes to these kinds of classrooms," said Kathy Christie, a researcher with the Education Commission of the States, a national organization that advises legislators on educational policies. "But at this stage in the game, it is better to try new things and find out if they fail rather than try nothing at all."

Single-sex classrooms have not been free of controversy in Baltimore.

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