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N.H. District Contemplates All-Girls Math Class

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A New Hampshire public high school may be the next to try out an increasingly popular equation for mathematics classes: Subtracting boys equals more success for girls.

Concerned that female students tend to fare poorly compared with male students on standardized math tests, the Portsmouth, N.H., school board voted 6 to 3 last month to consider a voluntary, all-girls math class at Portsmouth High School.

Administrators at the 950-student school are drawing up a plan for such a class. If the school board approves it, Portsmouth will become the first public school district in the state to offer a gender-segregated math class.

Schools in several states have experimented with same-sex classes over the past decade and have had some success in boosting female students' confidence and interest in traditionally male-dominated subjects.

But many educators and gender-equity experts suggest that such treatment gives girls a negative image and violates Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in federally financed education programs.

Learning To Be Equal

Portsmouth school district officials are confident that they can sidestep legal problems by making the class voluntary and by discouraging, rather than prohibiting, boys from enrolling.

Educators and students at the high school, meanwhile, have mixed reactions.

"I don't really feel that we need [an all-girls class] here," said Susan Foye, the head of the math department. Ms. Foye said that at least as many girls as boys take calculus and pre-calculus at Portsmouth High School and that they perform as well as the male students. "The only place they're not doing as well" is on the Scholastic Assessment Test.

But Pip Clews, a sophomore, said a sex-segregated math class "would give girls greater confidence in themselves."

"Some think it's kind of pointless to segregate after finally being integrated," she added, "but I think that if we're going to be equal, we have to learn to be equal."

On the 1994 s.a.t., boys outscored girls on the verbal portion by 4 points and on the math section by 41 points on a 200-to-800 scale.

Such discrepancies are likely because of poor self-confidence, said Charles Vaughn, a school board member. An all-girls algebra class for 9th graders could help girls become more assertive in the subject and allow them to "move into geometry with a certain rigor," Mr. Vaughn said.

A Growing Trend

For the past six years, Presque Isle High School in Maine has offered just such a class--and has randomly assigned girls to it without any legal challenges. Periodically, said Principal Dick Durost, a student or her parent will request the all-girls algebra I section, but usually enrollment is set by a computer.

"Most of the girls' self-confidence [is] built to the point that they go into mixed classes with great success," Mr. Durost said.

A few other public schools, including several in California, have latched on to the idea, as have some private and charter schools. A few schools have even started all-boys classes in the arts and language arts.

Anne Bryant, the executive director of the American Association of University Women, said it is important that segregated classes be positive experiences for both male and female students.

Other experts said such classes could create negative stereotypes.

"We need to make sure we don't send the message that girls need some sort of special class," said Susan McGee Bailey, the executive director of Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women and the primary author of "The a.a.u.w. Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls."

Judith Day, a member of the Los Angeles school district's Commission for Sex Equity, agreed. All-female classes are "certainly a short-term way to bring girls into math and science, but ultimately what we need to do is think about how we are teaching those subjects in the first place."

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