School to test all-boy classes

Experiment: Teachers and parents at Twin Ridge Elementary hope that allowing for gender differences will improve learning.

May 24, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MOUNT AIRY - Pressed by federal law, educators for more than three decades have worked hard to assure equal opportunity for girls - to the point of upbraiding teachers for not calling on girls as often as boys.

But now the tables are turning. Twin Ridge Elementary School in southeast Frederick County is about to turn the spotlight on the less gentle sex. Beginning this fall, the school will create boys-only classrooms in the fourth and fifth grades in hopes of closing a worrisome gender gap.

"I wanted to do this because boys are in trouble, not only in this school, but in this state and in the nation," said H. Peter Storm, principal of the school, which serves a development of expensive homes in a far suburb of Baltimore and Washington.

Baltimore City has experimented with all-boys classes for years and is running them in at least eight schools. Most are taught by black men and designed to present role models to African-American boys.

What distinguishes Twin Ridge is that it's an upper-middle-class school with little racial or economic diversity.

In the two-year experiment, approved this spring by the Frederick County school board, 46 boys were chosen randomly for the two classes. "We're absolutely thrilled," said Donna Needle, whose third-grade son, Joshua, had about a one-in-three chance of getting picked for the all-boys fourth-grade class.

"Joshua does really well in school, but he's a handful. He gets easily distracted, so we think this alternative will give him a chance to concentrate."

Single-sex classes are rare in American public education, in part because Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and subsequent court decisions all but banned them. More than a year ago, however, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would relax regulations for educationally sound motives. (The department also has launched a study of single-sex schools.)

Bolstering the experiment at Twin Ridge are research findings that boys and girls develop and learn differently. Girls consistently outperform boys in reading and writing at Twin Ridge, said Storm, and in recent years they've pulled ahead in math. Far more boys than girls are referred to his office for discipline, Storm said, and far more boys are in special education.

"We can do something about all of these deficiencies," said Storm, "if we set our minds to it. And we can do it without holding any of our girls back. It's something I've wanted to do for all my 34 years in education."

Bev Lloyd, a first-grade teacher and head of the school's committee to study single-sex classrooms, said the two all-boy classes will feature activities that allow more physical movement "without turning it into a free-for-all."

There will be frequent breaks, perhaps an additional recess period. Reading topics will be more "male-friendly." Boys, said Lloyd, tend to like stories about sports, music, heavy equipment, cars and trucks.

There will also be more of what educators call "gentle competition." That, said Linda Burgee, Frederick County associate superintendent, is competition "that doesn't have distinct winners and losers."

Games in the all-boys classes will be fun and stress self-improvement, not boy-to-boy competition, said Lloyd.

Lloyd gave two PowerPoint presentations on the experiment recently, one for the third- and fourth-grade boys who were eligible for the single-gender classes and a more elaborate evening presentation for their parents.

"Boys are deductive thinkers," she told about 50 parents who showed up for the meeting a few days before letters of acceptance were mailed. "They start from a general principle and apply it to individual cases. They're more likely to become bored, and of course bored students are more likely to become disruptive." Several heads nodded agreement.

"Cooperative learning is easier for girls," Lloyd added. "Boys just want to get the job done.

"There are some things at which boys excel," Lloyd said. Boys are better at navigating the Internet, and they do better under pressure. "With the timer on, some girls just shut the mental door. It makes them too nervous."

Finally, Lloyd said, boys are more physically active and "require more room." That prompted a choir of nodding heads, including that of Donna Needles. "I thought she was describing Joshua," she said after the meeting.

Twin Ridge isn't planning all-girls classes just now, although the removal of about 23 boys from each of the fourth and fifth grades will change the balance of the mixed-gender classes. "As the mother of two wonderful girls, I promise you that nothing we recommend here will affect how your girls are performing," Lloyd told the parents, but she said a successful experiment with boys might lead to all-girl classes "down the road."

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