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Separated By Sex

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Last fall, Pilone began an unusual experiment that he hopes will break the school's long losing streak: He made every class single-sex.

Before the switch, constant quarreling and attention-grabbing stunts made for chaos and a bad reputation for the school. That test scores had hit bottom only made matters worse. Pilone made his decision to shake things up after talking to parents and students and combing through research on middle-level education and adolescent behavior.

Though he is not the first to test the concept of separating boys and girls in public schools, few educators have tried it schoolwide. Public schools in states such as California, Maine, and New Hampshire have created same-sex courses but primarily for high school students. Some experts say such classes may help girls excel in traditionally male-dominated subjects such as math and science.

Pilone, though, believes the changes could do more than that for his middle school students. The separation, he says, has already curbed classroom distractions and discipline problems and is beginning to restore order to a school that desperately needed it.

With 65,000 people packed into 2.7 square miles, Irvington shares some of the same urban troubles--poverty and crime, among them--that have made headlines next door in Newark. And Myrtle Middle School has not gone untouched.

One parent says that a couple of years ago she worried constantly about her daughter going to the school because she often saw police cars parked out front. Much of the trouble stemmed from fights between students.

Pilone, a 36-year employee of the Irvington district and a Myrtle alumnus, took over as principal in 1993. At that time, about 60 percent of the school's 7th and 8th graders qualified for federally subsidized lunches, and about half were enrolled in compensatory education programs. Roughly three-fourths of the school's 8th graders scored low enough on the state's "early warning'' test to qualify for extra help.

The principal says he quickly realized that many students were more interested in impressing each other than in getting down to schoolwork. "The hormones, you know, are all over the place,'' he says with a laugh. "So my thought was, let's remove all the distractions.''

He reorganized classes by sex and adopted a number of practices favored by experts on middle-level education, such as teaming students and teachers. He did all this with little fanfare, telling the community and district of his plans, then moving quickly. "It's easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission,'' Pilone explains. "This was an opportunity to turn things around.''

Although some legal experts contend that separating students violates laws barring sex discrimination in schools that get federal aid, no one in Irvington has pressed the matter. In fact, Pilone, a former coach with a raspy voice and upfront manner, has won praise from almost everyone associated with the project. And most people in town seem intent on letting the experiment unfold.

The principal made the split with the boys in mind; they were the most likely to act up and least likely to apply themselves in class, he says. But almost everyone who works at Myrtle says the changes have been a boon to the girls. "It's been a tremendous improvement,'' says Arleen Knutsen, who teaches 8th grade girls' math. "They keep more on task.''

And the girls themselves have few complaints. "It is better,'' one student explains. "You get to talk about things you wouldn't talk about with boys in the room. Lots of girls are doing better and trying harder.''

The number of girls on the honor roll is up, and reports of discipline problems among them are down. "The girls have just taken off,'' Pilone says with pride.

Most of the teachers on the second floor, home of the 7th grade, also hail the change. "I think it's fantastic that I have the girls,'' says Wanda Warren, a 7th grade social studies teacher. She notes, however, that some of the teachers assigned to the boys have had to struggle. Ultimately, she says, "you have to be a really, really strong person when you have the boys.''

A few teachers, Warren and others quietly point out, have not been up to the challenge. In one of the boys' classes, for example, students look bored and talk openly during their lessons. The teacher, it seems, has little control over the class.

But this isn't universally the case. In Michael Dixon's math class, the boys work quietly at their desks, while the teacher moves about the room offering help. The second-year teacher is a straight-shooter when it comes to misbehavior. He says he makes it clear right away that he will not tolerate it. "You have to lay down the law,'' he says. "A lot of these kids don't have a male role model at home--that stern hand.''

The action picks up during lunch and between classes, the only times during the school day when boys and girls come face to face. The students pack these brief meetings with as much laughing, talking, flirting, and noise-making as possible. Next year, even this activity will be curtailed; Pilone plans to divide the school into boys' and girls' floors.

Some students say they miss coed classes, but most seem to accept the arrangement. "Boys'll be acting all silly when girls are there and not thinking about their work,'' 8th grader Tyreke says. Still, he admits that he misses having girls in class. Recently, he landed in the assistant principal's office because his teacher said he was checking out the girls' class across the hall and not paying attention.

Although the school still has problems, parents insist it is better than before. "This was the best thing they ever could have done,'' says Kim Caine, the mother of an 8th grader, who has noticed her daughter's interest in school grow since the change.

Other schools around town have been watching the Myrtle experiment. In fact, Irvington's Union Avenue Middle School plans to segregate its classes by sex next year.

Pilone, meanwhile, is not claiming any miracles, but he believes his students are making strides--especially the girls. As for the boys, he says, this spring's test scores may give him a sense of how the initiative is working.

"It's not like this is going to be for the rest of their lives,'' he says of the separation. "It's the two years that are the most difficult for youngsters.''

--Joanna Richardson

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