Middle school for boys part of a trend toward single-sex education

October 12, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

The boys in the seventh-grade classroom wave their hands wildly and squirm in their seats, unable to contain their joy in a competition involving singular and plural nouns. Their teacher seems undaunted by the outbursts of cheering.

These are boys, after all. Sometimes they are loud.

In a struggling East Baltimore neighborhood, the middle-schoolers have begun their second year at an all-boys charter school whose creation marks a distinct shift in thinking about single-sex education in the public schools. Next fall its founders will open a college-prep school for boys, and a New York-based foundation will open one for girls in Baltimore. Meanwhile, in Prince George's County, a failing high school will attempt to improve by segregating the sexes for core academic classes.

Proponents argue that single-sex schools help students concentrate on academics and improve performance. Their resurgence has come about since 2006, when the U.S. Department of Education gave school districts more leeway to develop single-gender classes and schools, and there are now about 100 nationwide.

But the change also has ignited a debate over segregating students by gender, and the American Civil Liberties Union has opposed the nascent movement. In May, the ACLU filed a complaint in federal court charging that single-sex classes in a Kentucky middle school were illegal and discriminatory.

"In general, the ACLU is always concerned when we see gender segregation. But the situation of most concern to us is when students have no choice but to participate in single-gender classrooms or schools, or if students are shut out of valuable educational opportunities because of gender," said Bebe Verdery, education director of the Maryland ACLU.

While all-girls and all-boys schools are common among Baltimore-area private and parochial schools, only venerable Western High School for girls in Baltimore survived challenges that began in the 1970s, when the federal government forbade gender discrimination in public education. Loosening those rules has created opportunities for those concerned about a national decline in boys' achievement.

That was the motivation of three African-American men who considered opening a charter school to help the population they believed to be most in trouble in Baltimore: young black males. Black boys were being assigned to special education at higher rates and were more apt to be suspended and to drop out. Particularly alarming to Carl Stokes, one of the school's founders and a former school board member, was that they were in the minority at most of the city's top competitive high schools, even ones that had once been all-boys schools.

They started Bluford Drew Jemison Science Technology Engineering Math Academy on Caroline and Biddle streets a year ago, gave the boys strict discipline and held them in school until 7 p.m. They also ensured added support with two full-time social workers and two interns.

"We inculcate our young men to be strong. We don't baby these boys over here," Stokes said.

Darius Kelly, 12, walking down the hall with his friends at Bluford Drew Jemison, said his school is a place "where you can stay focused and make something of yourself. ... We don't have our minds focused on girls." Teachers talk to the boys in a way that girls wouldn't understand, he said.

In a neighborhood where being smart and scholarly isn't always considered cool, Stokes believes his boys are setting a new standard in their white shirts, neckties and khaki pants. Instead of being picked on, he said, they have begun to put pressure on the boys on the streets of their neighborhoods.

While Baltimore is experimenting with many types of education reform, other localities have been more cautious.

In Frederick, the Monocacy Montessori Community Inc., which opened the state's first charter school years ago, applied to start an all-girls school but was turned down last year by the Frederick County school board. The group reapplied this year for a school focusing on learning foreign languages, said Angela Phillips, who has led the effort. She said the board rejected the first proposal in part because it believed a single-sex charter school was not legal.

The poor performance of boys led to the resurgence of single-sex schools. Although girls once lagged behind, they are beginning to outpace boys on many academic measures.

Consider that at every grade level in both math and reading, a higher percentage of girls pass the Maryland School Assessments, and in some cases the pass rates for girls are considerably higher. Girls outnumber boys by nearly 2-1 at the city's top five selective high schools.

And nationally, women make up 58 percent of college students this fall, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Only on the SATs are boys still able to hold on to their lead.

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