Single-Gender Schools Gaining Favor, Success


As they sit separated by a hallway, the boys and girls of Jefferson Leadership Academies in Long Beach don’t cite research to explain why they concentrate, learn and behave. And they don’t care whether their public middle school violates federal law. Something about their school is working, they say. And if they took classes together, it wouldn’t.

“You can ask your teacher something girlie, and you don’t have to worry about boys saying something cruel,” seventh-grader Kiona Jones said. “It’s more open.”

Boys at the school acknowledge that the girls would distract them. In a class of just boys, eighth-grader Jesse Alvarez said, “we still joke around, but we get our work done.”


Educators have debated whether single-sex classrooms make Jesse more focused and Kiona less timid, but for three decades the question has been overshadowed by fears that spending public dollars on such segregated programs would violate federal laws against discrimination.

However, Congress and officials in the Bush administration recently signaled that single-sex classes should not be confined to private schools and that revised regulations will lift the legal cloud. As a result, rare experiments like Jefferson’s are expected to become more common.

“Our effort here is not to say that single-sex education is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” said Brian Jones, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education, at a briefing this month. Rather, he said, the government is encouraging innovation and flexibility, and will not fund schools that extend advantages to one gender without offering comparable treatment to the other.

This shift in federal opinion is the most dramatic in the field since Title IX became law in 1972 to give female students equal access to education. Along with the offer of millions of dollars in federal grants for experimental programs, the policy change has invigorated the single-sex movement--and the debate over whether it really helps youngsters.

“It says to the local school districts, ‘If you’d like to look into it, don’t worry about the lawyers ganging up on you,’” said Carolyn Colletti of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools.

Educators wanting to develop same-sex programs will likely look to Jefferson Leadership Academies and the 10 other public schools nationwide where either one gender is excluded or boys and girls take all their academic classes apart. An uncounted number of other U.S. schools separate the genders in only some subjects, such as math and science.

The voluntary program that Jefferson Principal Jill Rojas designed three years ago to revamp the low-scoring Long Beach school was an attractive example even before Washington warmed to single-sex schooling. For about 1,200 students in grades six through eight, Jefferson has one faculty, one campus and one cafeteria. Every class but band is segregated.

While one group of 35 boys studies reading, writing and social studies, the girls--also in blue and white uniforms--study math and science across the hall. At midday, they swap. For homeroom, the boys are assigned to male teachers and the girls to female ones.

“We both have English with Miss Jones. You have it first period, I have it third period. What’s the difference?” Rojas said, conjecturing why her “separate but equal” model has not been among those challenged by civil-rights organizations.

Opponents attribute whatever success single-sex schools have achieved to other advantages: small classes, skilled teachers, active parents--but not the gender separation. Lack of those extras, they contend, shortchanges children at less-fortunate schools. And, critics argue, single-sex schools train students in an environment too different from the adult world.

“Schools are the workplace of childhood,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, which joined the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to formally complain about a public high school for girls in Harlem. “If we teach that boys and girls can’t learn together and can’t thrive together

A coeducational environment, particularly in middle and high schools, is not “the real world” either, counters Leonard Sax, the Maryland physician and psychologist who runs the National Assn. for the Advancement of Single Sex Public Education.

“It is a very peculiar and unreal culture in which what counts is how you look, not who you are,” Sax said.

That is precisely why Tina Perry sends her 14-year-old daughter to Jefferson in the Long Beach Unified School District. Teenagers, Perry has observed teaching at a Watts middle school, are “hormonal hoodlums,” and putting them all together disrupts learning.

In the coed science classes that Perry teaches, “I just feel like I waste time knowing who’s dating who,” so she can keep them apart during lab projects, she said. High school, however, is not a place to separate students, Perry believes, so she is sending her daughter to ninth grade at a school with coed classes.

Educators argue about an array of research on single-sex schools. The most exhaustive studies were conducted abroad, mostly in England and Australia, where single-sex public schools are deeply rooted.

Overall, the research suggests that same-gender education works for some students but not all, and that such programs do little or no harm. Some research concludes single-sex classes are best in elementary school. Other studies find more benefits in middle and high school. By some measures, single-sex is worthwhile only for girls, especially minority girls from low-income homes. Still more studies suggest that boys benefit too.

“There is no definitive study that says absolutely, positively, without a doubt the best way to educate kids is single-sex classrooms. But there’s also no definitive study that says absolutely, positively, without a doubt the best way is coed classrooms,” said Karen Stabiner, the Los Angeles author of “All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters,” scheduled for publication in August by Riverhead Books. The spectrum of opinions suggests that new single-sex programs in public school districts won’t all look alike, few if any will be mandatory, and most public schools will remain coed.

The wide-ranging reform bill passed last year by Congress and signed in January by President Bush directed the Department of Education to revise its regulations to permit more single-sex elementary and secondary programs. The department on May 8 opened a 60-day period for public comment.

A 1996 Supreme Court decision that opened the publicly funded Virginia Military Institute to women left room for exclusive education programs if “comparable,” or equally funded, opportunities are available to all students.

“‘Comparable’ doesn’t mean the same.... If you have a ballet class at the girls’ school, you don’t have to have a ballet class at the boys’ school,” said Sax, the advocate for single-sex public education.

California attracted much attention in the late 1990s for its experiment with separate academies for boys and girls. When the state funding ran out, all but one of the six schools closed. Students at the remaining San Francisco 49ers Academies in East Palo Alto have improved their grades and behavior and are less likely to skip school or drop out, the school reports.

At the Jefferson academies in Long Beach, teachers make small adjustments for differences they perceive in boys’ and girls’ development, learning styles and interests.

Boys in Jack Sokoloff’s seventh-grade humanities class want to know more about military battles. In her science class for girls, Marisela Moreno emphasizes women’s contributions to medicine.

Diane Naegele, a seventh-grade humanities teacher, said that in 14 years of teaching at other schools, she never gave boys much credit. Girls seemed to be doing the deep thinking. When Jefferson boys are by themselves, she has noticed, “they’re willing to say their crazy ideas, and a lot of their crazy ideas have meat to them.”

Outside of Jefferson’s classrooms, there are fewer formal divisions, but students create them. In the cafeteria, girls sit mostly to the left of the lunch line and boys take the right. The playground is less segregated.

Jefferson’s program seems to sit well with most students, but some grumble. Contrary to studies that show students are more focused in single-sex classes, Oscar Vasquez, 12, said he would pay better attention if a girl--at least one he thought was cute--were at the desk next to him.

“If you didn’t know some kind of math and she knew it, you’d really listen to her,” he said. “But with another boy, you’d just start playing around.”

Since Jefferson split into single-gender academies, the school’s overall standardized-test score has improved 16%. Although it is difficult to isolate the reason among other educational reforms, increases were achieved in all grades and all subjects by all ethnicities and both genders.

Still, Jefferson’s scores remain well below the state average for middle schools--although among urban schools with similar demographics, Jefferson ranks higher. Coming mostly from the surrounding neighborhood but also elsewhere in Long Beach, more than 80% of the academies’ students qualify for free or discounted lunches because of their families’ low incomes. About a third are classified as still learning English.

“The students think they’ve done better” because they study in segregated classes, principal Rojas said. “And that’s all I care about.”