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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 01:02 am

Boys will learn better with boys

Why Jefferson Middle School is sold on single-gender classrooms

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Christine Orama’s sixth-grade class at Jefferson Middle School.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

In a quaint neighborhood on Springfield’s southeast side sits Springfield School District 186’s best-kept secret — Jefferson Middle School. On the surface, Jefferson resembles the city’s other middle schools; however, a peek inside quickly reveals clear differences that make Jefferson stand out. As schools across the country struggle to improve students’ academic performance, and decrease disciplinary problems and student absences, Jefferson school officials believe that they have found a solution: single-gender classrooms. In fact, the experiment at Jefferson has been so successful that District 186 is considering opening two gender-based academies, beginning next fall.

Stephanie McCorkle views herself as a “boy teacher.”
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

There’s two minutes left on the clock. Only a few points separate the two teams. Boys from both teams eagerly await the pass. With the ball in hand, the student rushes to the basket, shoots and scores. His teammates briefly cheer, but the celebration can’t last too long, as players again await the opportunity to receive the pass and score. At first glance, Stephanie McCorkle’s sixth-grade class looks a lot like a physical education course. In fact, the students are having so much fun that they appear to forget that they are in a math class and can only receive the ball if they are the first to solve the math equation presented to them on a flash card.

McCorkle, who has been teaching math in the capital city for two years, taught a coed math class last school year. But it’s clear that she has found her niche. “Teaching as a whole is a lot easier. I can actually create lesson plans using strategies geared specifically towards boys,” says McCorkle, who views herself as a “boy teacher.” In comparing last year’s coed math class to the single-gender class she currently teaches, McCorkle says that not only is she seeing a big difference in the boys’ motivation, focus and drive, but the boys are also motivating each other to learn.

Principal Sena Nelson is described as a hands-on principal, in the classroom on a daily basis.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

Down the hall from McCorkle’s classroom is Latisha Johnson-Caldwell’s sixth-grade math class for girls. Though teaching the same grade and subject, the atmosphere in McCorkle’s and Johnson-Caldwell’s classrooms couldn’t be more different. While the boys are loud and full of energy, you can almost hear a pin drop in Johnson-Caldwell’s room, as girls sit in small groups. As McCorkle’s boys thrive in the heat of competition, Johnson-Caldwell’s girls diligently work together, each giving input while helping others complete the math problems.

While studies show that girls, when placed in math courses with boys, tend to perform poorly compared to their male counterparts, in Johnson-Caldwell’s class, not only did each of the girls give input on the assignment, but they also were not shy about asking questions. Studies also show that girls in coed classes tend to remain silent even when they know the answers, for fear of being made fun of by the boys in the class.

“It is a known fact that there are distinct differences between boys and girls in terms of learning styles and what they respond to,” said Jefferson Principal Sena Nelson. “We know that boys are more talkative and competitive. And they tend to have shorter attention spans. They prefer to be out of their seats and moving around. Thus, they respond better to shorter, timed assignments. Girls, on the other hand, are supportive, less competitive, enjoy working together, and are more willing to help each other. They’re also more sensitive to each other’s needs.”

“In the past, getting boys to read and write has been a struggle,” says Christine Orama, who taught sixth-grade coed English for five years before moving to an all-boys class. “Now, not only do the boys love to read, they also have better grades and test scores than the boys in coed English.” According to Orama, one of the biggest differences is that she is not only able to focus on reading assignments that are more appealing to boys, but she is also able to incorporate activities that the boys enjoy.

“This has been a positive experience,” says Beth Fletcher, who teaches a seventh-grade English class for girls. “The girls are more confident in group discussions, and they are more comfortable getting up in front of the class.” Like Orama, Fletcher has also been able to use books and creative activities geared towards girls.

Joe Hemstock, who teaches history and science to seventh-grade boys at Jefferson Middle School, says there’s one other huge benefit of the gender classes. “With only one gender in the classroom, there’s no flirting. You don’t have students putting on makeup, brushing and combing their hair, cleaning their shoes, etc. With the gender classes, much of the nonsense between boys and girls ceases to exist, enabling students to focus on their schoolwork.”

Jefferson teachers and administrators are not the only ones praising the gender classes. Paula McKay credits the program for her son Michael’s current academic success. “Michael really struggled with his grades in elementary school,” stated McKay, who heard about the program from Michael’s sixth-grade teacher. “Once Michael was placed in the gender classes, we began seeing a big difference in grades. Now he is on the honor roll, and he’s more enthusiastic about school. And Michael, an eighth-grade student who was also in gender classes last school year, agrees. “I work much better when I’m in classes with just boys. There are no girls to look at or distract me. Now I’m able to focus on my assignments and my grades have gotten a lot better.”

It was almost by accident that Jefferson administrators stumbled into the idea of single-gender classrooms while attending a conference on various disciplinary programs. Now, in the second year of a two-year pilot program, Jefferson joins the ranks of more than 540 public schools across the country offering classrooms for single genders, with most operating similar to Jefferson, where lunches and a few electives are coed. Only a handful of schools in Illinois have single-gender classrooms, including eleven in the Chicago area and each of the three middle schools, as well as one high school, in East St. Louis.

Stephanie Hansel, left, Mariah Chatman and teacher Latisha Johnson-Caldwell in a sixth-grade math class for girls, who sometimes are shy when in class with boys.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

Overall the concept of single-gender classrooms has met with mixed reviews. Some educators across the country tout the benefits of the classes, insisting that a vast majority of the students in the classes are more motivated and focused, have greater academic success, have more self confidence, and are more involved in classroom activities. Many have also shown improvements in subjects that a particular gender tends to avoid. For example, girls tend to shy away from courses such as math, computer science and physics, while boys steer clear of subjects such as art and music. As a result, supporters believe that the gender classes expand educational opportunities, with students considering fields that they may have otherwise thought were off limits.

Others are not so convinced, arguing that there have not been enough studies done to definitively conclude that gender classes lead to greater academic success. Opponents also believe that single-gender classes are a form of segregation and that they hinder students in learning to socialize with those of the opposite gender. They add that the classes reinforce gender roles and threaten some of the advances females have made under Title X, a federal law prohibiting discrimination in schools based on gender. They also argue that not all girls are afraid to ask questions in co-ed courses, such as math and science, and not all boys are reluctant to participate in courses such as art and music. In addition, opponents believe that by separating the genders, schools fail to teach boys and girls to work together.

Nelson admits that gender classes may not be for everyone. “Students enrolled in gender classes can opt out if their parents believe that the program is not working for their children,” said Nelson. Since gender classes began, only one student has returned to coed classrooms. Despite the naysayers, Nelson stands by the gender classes, emphasizing that Jefferson has had nothing but positive results. Nelson has high hopes for gender classes at Jefferson. “I would love to eventually have all of our classes single gendered,” she said, adding that she hopes that the school will eventually been known as “the single-gender school.”

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