Troubled N.J. School Turns to Single-Sex Classes

By Joanna Richardson — March 15, 1995 6 min read

Irvington, N.J.

At Myrtle Middle School, Tyreke Moore is a smooth operator.

The laid-back 8th grader likes to talk to the girls. Sometimes, he admits, it gets in the way of his schoolwork.

But these days, Tyreke is getting few opportunities to mingle.

He spends most hours at this public school outside Newark surrounded by boys. Every day, in math class, social studies, art, and science, he finds the same scene: a roomful of guys.

The girls are in classes across the hall--out of reach and, Principal Anthony Pilone hopes, out of mind.

Last fall, Mr. Pilone began an unusual experiment that he hopes will break the school’s long losing streak: He separated the boys and the girls, making every class here single-sex.

Desperate Measure

Before the switch, constant “he said, she said” quarreling and attention-grabbing stunts made for chaos and a bad reputation for the school, the principal said. That test scores had hit bottom only made matters worse.

So Mr. Pilone decided to shake things up.

He made his decision 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 on a schoolwide scale. Public schools in states such as California, Maine, and New Hampshire recently have set up same-sex courses, primarily for high school students. (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1994.)

Some experts say those classes may help girls, for example, excel in traditionally male-dominated subjects such as mathematics and science.

Mr. Pilone, though, believes the changes could do more than that for his middle school students. He says the separation has curbed classroom distractions and discipline problems and is beginning to restore order to a school--and an age group--that desperately needed it.

Driven to Distraction

A fine line divides Irvington and its big-city neighbor, Newark. With its 65,000 people packed into 2.7 square miles, Irvington shares the same urban troubles--such as poverty and crime--that have made headlines next door. And Myrtle Middle School has not gone untouched.

One parent said 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.

Mr. Pilone, a 36-year employee of the Irvington district and a Myrtle alumnus, took over as principal in 1993. He inherited what some here have called hard-to-teach students.

About 60 percent of the school’s 7th and 8th graders qualify for federally subsidized lunches, and about half are enrolled in compensatory-education programs. And about three-fourths of the school’s 8th graders score low enough on the state’s “early warning” test to qualify for extra help.

Mr. Pilone said 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,” the principal said with a laugh one day recently, expressing what seems to be a favorite explanation for mischief at the school. “So my thought was, let’s remove all the distractions.”

So he organized classes by sex and adopted practices favored by experts on middle-level education, such as teaming students and teachers.

He did this with little fanfare, telling the community and the district of his plans, then moving quickly.

“It’s easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission,” Mr. Pilone explained. “This was an opportunity to turn things around.”

A former coach with a raspy voice and up-front manner, Mr. Pilone has won praise from almost everyone associated with the school.

So far, no one here has raised legal questions about the move. Some educators, however, question whether separating students violates laws barring sex discrimination in schools that get federal aid.

Most observers here seem intent on letting the experiment unfold.

Girls ‘Take Off’

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 said.

But almost everyone who works here says the changes have been a boon to the girls.

“It’s been a tremendous improvement,” said Arleen Knutsen, who teaches 8th-grade math to girls. “They keep more on task.”

The girls themselves have few complaints.

“It is better that you get to talk about things you wouldn’t talk about with boys in the room,” one student remarked. “Lots of girls are doing better and trying harder.”

The number of girls on the honor roll is up, and reports of their discipline problems are down, said Assistant Principal Joseph Isaacson.

“The girls have just taken off,” Mr. Pilone added with pride.

Teachers on the second floor, home of the 7th grade, also hail the new look.

“I think it’s fantastic that I have the girls,” said Wanda Warren, a 7th-grade social-studies teacher. On a recent visit, her class, like Ms. Knutsen’s, was attentive and involved.

She said, though, that some teachers assigned to boys’ classes have struggled. Ultimately, she said, “you have to be a really,really strong person when you have the boys.”

‘Lay Down the Law’

Ms. Warren’s colleagues agree, and some say a few teachers have not been up to the challenge.

In one recent language-arts class, students interrupted frequently and the teacher seemed to have little control over the boys. Most looked bored, or talked during the lesson.

But down the hall in Michael Dixon’s math class, the boys worked quietly at their desks, while the teacher moved about the room offering help. The second-year teacher is a straight-shooter when it comes to misbehaving. He said he makes it clear, right away, that he will not tolerate it.

Mr. Dixon added later that some teachers may not have what it takes to handle a class full of teenage boys.

“You have to lay down the law” with them, he said. “A lot of these kids don’t have a male role model at home--that stern hand.”

Things get interesting during lunch and between classes, the only time during the school day when boys and girls meet.

The students pack these brief occasions with as much laughing, talking, flirting, and noise-making as possible.

Next year, they will have even less contact with the opposite sex. Mr. Pilone plans to divide the school into boys’ and girls’ floors.

Meeting Time

Some students say they miss coed classes, but others reluctantly accept the arrangement.

“Boys’ll be acting all silly when girls are there and not thinking about their work,” said Tyreke. But he also admitted he misses having girls in class.

Recently, he landed in Mr. Isaacson’s office because his teacher said he was not paying attention. Instead, he was checking out the girls’ class across the hall.

And a few boys claim there are more fights around school now. “That’s what happens when you put boys together,” said one boy.

In two days, students pulled the fire alarm five times and soaped the boys’ bathroom. “It’s about to wipe me out,” said one school security guard.

Yet, despite those continued problems, some parents say the school was worse before.

“This was the best thing they ever could have done,” said Kim Caine, the mother of an 8th grader. She said her daughter’s interest in school has grown since the change.

Educators at other schools seem to like the idea, too. Next year, Irvington’s Union Avenue Middle School--which has shared some of this school’s frustrations--is going to split its classes.

Mr. Pilone is not claiming any miracles. But he believes the students are making strides--especially the girls. As for the boys, he said this spring’s test scores may give him a sense of how the experiment is working.

“It’s not like this is going to be for the rest of their lives,” he said of the separation. “It’s the two years which are the most difficult for youngsters.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 1995 edition of Education Week as Troubled N.J. School Turns to Single-Sex Classes