St. Louis-area high school tries single-gender classrooms

Monday, November 22, 2010 | 10:01 a.m. CST

JENNINGS — A section of Normandy High School in suburban St. Louis is the latest public school to move to single-gender classrooms, part of an effort to turn around a district that could lose its accreditation because of low test scores and other academic woes.

One-third of Normandy's students were not graduating, so two years ago, superintendent Stanton Lawrence hired Curt Green as principal. Green had used single-gender classrooms to help turn around failing schools in Baton Rouge, La., and Atlanta.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Monday that Green has begun the Ninth Grade Academy on the third floor of the high school. There, girls and boys are separated from each other and the rest of the school.

"Freshman year is crucial," Green said. "You build your foundation. Often times, students get behind that first year and drop out later if they can't catch up."

On a recent morning, students in Lindsay Schulte's all-girls communications arts class sat in groups of four around desks and used colored markers to draw and write character traits of well-known personalities and historical figures.

Down the hall, Dennis Love's all-boys communications arts class studied characterization, using John F. Kennedy and Michael Jordan as subjects.

The concept isn't new. Private and Catholic schools in St. Louis have offered single-sex education for decades. But more public schools are warming up to the idea.

In suburban St. Louis, the Parkway School District has single-sex classes at two grade schools. Francis House Central Elementary in St. Charles County is at the end of a three-year single-gender experiment for fifth graders.

Urban schools, including the high school and middle schools in East St. Louis, Ill., are using the approach to target lagging performance. St. Louis city schools are exploring the idea for some middle and elementary schools, superintendent Kelvin Adams said.

Teachers say they can take different approaches if the classroom is single-gender. At Normandy, Love says boys are more likely to squirm in their seats, use nonverbal communication and talk out of turn. They prefer class work that requires them to use their hands.

So Love keeps his lectures short and lets the boys get up and move every now and then.

Meanwhile, teachers say, girls tend to be more verbal, and prefer organization and working in groups.

"Some of the girls are willing to participate and get involved, where maybe they were more shy before," Schulte said. "Some of them that might have been more quiet in class don't feel that fear of coming up and doing things they may not have been as comfortable with in front of the boys."

So far, even some students are impressed.

In coed classes, "some kids would act out so they could impress the girls," said student Raymond Mesa. "Now they sit down and do the work."

"I like the way that I'm learning," Rontez Williams said. "I'm very focused on my work."

Single-sex education in public schools became illegal in 1972 with the passage of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. But in 2001, U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote an amendment that made single-sex education in public schools legal again.

Some, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women, have called the separation illegal and discriminatory. Other critics say the approach promotes gender stereotypes and fails to prepare students for a world where the sexes work together.

Advocates counter it removes obstacles that keep girls from achieving in science and math, and engages boys who would otherwise sit in the back of the class.

Normandy officials will evaluate test scores at the end of the year to determine whether the single-gender approach should be expanded.

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