One Monday night that December, we visited a primary school in Manning, a small town 65 miles east of Columbia to talk to parents who have the option of enrolling their seven-and eight-years olds in single sex classes. Two second grade teachers there, Holly Garneau and Anna Lynne Gamble, had heard Chadwell speak a few months earlier about the physical and cognitive differences in growing children and strategies they could use to accommodate them. Curious about what they learned, they started experimenting immediately by separating boys and girls within their classes—and were amazed at the results.
“There’s much less tattling,” says Gamble immediately. “The kids enjoy being with the same sex for projects and group work. They seem to know how to help each other better.”
Leaving aside teaching methodology for a moment, single-sex education pits two powerful trends in American public life against one another. The first is the increasingly insistent demand that the nation’s public schools do a much better job of educating the nation’s young, especially those most at risk of falling behind. Doing so requires reform, risk, and challenging the status quo. It was why the No Child Left Behind Law, although opposed by teachers unions, enjoyed broad bipartisan support when Congress passed it overwhelmingly in 2001. The other prevailing wind is a generations-long struggle to dismantle the barriers long associated with sexism in American society. Some of those on the frontlines of this struggle believe that single-sex education sends a confusing message, moves in the wrong direction, and simply codifies sexual stereotypes instead of challenging them.
“[Single sex programs] grossly characterize all girls and all boys and don’t take into account differences in the individual,” says Lenora Lapidus, the director of the women’s rights project for the American Civil Liberties Union. Lapidus believes public fund could be better spent on teacher training and smaller classes.
“It’s not conclusive that these programs bring about the successes they’re touted for,” Lapidus adds, “Boys’ classes will be very dynamic. Girls will be missing out. It’s not right.”
Michigan offers fifteen single gender programs around the state. The Detroit International Academy, a high school for girls located in the heart of the inner-city, has lured students from the suburbs and has doubled enrollment since it began three years ago. Felica Ali sees a stark difference in her fifteen-year-old daughter Jazzmine since she switched from a co-ed school to be with all girls.
“There was a struggle in the beginning because she wasn‘t used to the environment, but now I‘m watching her bloom,“ she says. “She‘s more outgoing, she doesn‘t worry about her hair, nails, appearance. She‘s focused on academics, not boys.” She adds that the format has been such a hit with her daughter that the 15-year-old now says she wants to attend an all women’s college.
Detroit’s example keeps good company. A similarly structured school, The Young Women’s Leadership School located in New York City’s Harlem, opened its doors in 1996 before the legality of public single sex schools in the United States was entirely clear. Most of the girls, grades seven through twelve, came from impoverished families. Many attended remedial classes. Nevertheless, the attendance rate—over 95%—is higher than any other school in the district. Out of the seven graduating classes, all were accepted to college with many receiving full scholarships. Over 90% of these graduates were the first in their family to go to college.
Back at South Kilbourne where Carol Anderson and Aba Wallace teach, Principal Sarah Smith says her school had major discipline problems with the first and second graders last year. The kids were so talkative and disruptive, they kept getting time-outs. But this year, since she’s implemented the single sex classes in those grades, they’ve had no discipline problems. Zero. Smith considers this a huge victory. “How can they learn to read if they’re constantly out of class?” she asks.