Separate Worlds

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In 1996, the state of California created six new single-sex academies. But two years later, their future is hanging by a thread.

San Francisco

For now, at least, it's a room all their own. Thirty 8th graders, all of them girls, sit quietly at their desks in Marina Middle School, dissecting Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," oblivious to the sporadic squeals and bouncing balls on the blacktop outside.

Rachel Friedman prods them to explore the themes and context of Miller's complex play, set in the witch-hunting days of Colonial Massachusetts. In the past few weeks, the class has explored the history of witches and discussed their relevance to contemporary politics and women's issues, lessons made easier, she says, in an all-girl setting.

And on this day, the teacher wants her students to apply what they've learned to the hysteria of 17th-century Salem.

"We have witchcraft and magic and things unexplained," Friedman says, allowing a pause while she scans the room. "What's going on here?"

What's going on at this San Francisco school and in five other California schools is a unusual experiment in single-sex public education.

Gov. Pete Wilson came up with the idea in 1996, based on the much-touted, but much-debated, benefits of separating the boys from the girls. Lawmakers approved the $500,000-per-school start-up grants, and six academies--most of them parts of other schools--opened in the fall of 1997.

The single-sex settings, the Republican governor said, were part of the state's "education renaissance" that included class-size reduction in the early grades; new academic standards; a growing roster of charter schools; and a school voucher proposal, dubbed "opportunity scholarships," that was never enacted. According to Mr. Wilson, the new academies would give girls the opportunity to speak out freely and offer boys a learning environment without the distraction of the opposite sex. But like the ambitious effort here to lower class sizes, and like other prominent school reform experiments in California and elsewhere, it is far from clear whether the six schools will live up to their expectations. And right now, it's not even clear that they will survive at all.

In an old portable classroom at Andrew P. Hill High School in San Jose, distractions on a summer-like day abound. Several of the 11 boys studying "self-esteem" as part of a health education course seem to have shifted their focus to getting the teacher's attention, or perhaps just getting the teacher.

"OK, settle down, quiet please," says Matt Sperisen, who, like most of the academies' instructors, is young, new to the school, and relatively new to teaching. Mr. Sperisen received emergency credentials from the state in 1996 and is working this year on earning his full credentials.

"I need you to think about self-esteem. Can you name someone who has high self-esteem?" he asks slowly, reading from a colorful textbook. "Can you think of someone with low self-esteem?"

The concept, however, seems elusive to the group of 9th grade boys, many of whom, between blurting out half-serious answers to the teacher's questions, fidget, razz each other, snack, and stare off into space. One student, a big but baby-faced boy wearing oversized black pants, is sent out of the room three times to settle down.

"Self-esteem is how much you like yourself and how you feel about yourself," the teacher explains, keeping his cool despite the fair-weather fever that has gripped his students.

California's experiment is modeled after single-sex private schools, but most similarities end there. With the exception of one of the state's academies in Orange County, which is set up for at-risk students, participants in the California program move in and out of coeducational settings--hallways, lunchrooms, and extracurriculars--throughout their day.

Students in Sperisen's class, for example, mix with the general student body before school, between classes, during lunch, and in after-school activities. And by their junior year, when the program ends, they'll be back with the girls.

After giving birth to the six academies, the state has essentially left them to wither or flourish on their own.

Initially, Wilson announced that he had set aside $5 million in his budget to pay for year two of the program. Some $2 million of that amount would go to the existing single-sex academies, and $3 million would double their number to 12.

But by summer, that $5 million had been inexplicably dropped during the legislative budget process, leaving the academies--in San Francisco, Orange County, East Palo Alto, San Jose, Stockton, and rural Dorris--scrambling to come up with funds for this school year. Despite Wilson's endorsement, their future hangs in the balance.

"The funding problems were a total surprise," says Principal John A. Michaelson of San Francisco's Marina Middle School, where Rachel Friedman teaches. "A real kick in the stomach."

The 115-student single-gender program, which includes separate classes for boys and girls within the 800-student campus, is open to all the city's students.

An aide to Wilson, who is winding down his eight-year tenure as governor, can offer no explanation for the omission.

"It's hard to say why this was left out. We tried for a second year of funding and expansion," and there seemed to be no staunch opposition in the legislature, says Rich Halberg, a spokesman for the governor on education issues.

He notes that the program would have been a small portion of the state's $28 billion K-12 schools budget this fiscal year. "The budget process is at times dysfunctional," Halberg says.

Michaelson and administrators at the other academies, who want to make the experiment a permanent school offering, say they're working with officials in their districts to scrape together money from local school budgets and are hoping to piece together a patchwork of private grants.

After the self-esteem lesson in San Jose, Sperisen explains that many of his male students--a few of the schools have had a tough time filling the boys' programs--were recommended to the program because they weren't faring well in the school's regular classes.

"But a lot of the problems of this class have to do with plain old immaturity," he says. Sperisen says that moodiness, whatever the mood, tends to spread easily among the academy's classes, which spend the entire school day, the whole school year, together.

He adds that some of their behavior is "just a reflection of where kids are socially today, with no respect for each other or their teacher. It's a sad commentary, and at 14 or 15, the die is cast."

Despite the occasional unruly atmosphere, Derek Perry, a thin, square-shouldered 14-year-old who had been doing well in his regular classes, doesn't hesitate when asked what he likes about the single-sex academy.

"We get more individual attention because our classes are so small. And we have more computers," he says, smiling through his braces.

"We're like one big family," deadpans Kesan Hames, 15, a class clown with a penchant for Pop Warner football. "And sometimes we get on each other's nerves."

Though the idea of single-sex public schools has broad appeal, research has yet to confirm whether or not it works.

So far, many of the educators involved with the program say that, despite its administrative and budget problems, they like it too, if only for the same reasons as Derek Perry's: smaller classes, extra resources, and the chance to work more closely with students and parents.

"Ideally, I'd like to see the program expand," says Jocelyn Lee, the coordinator of San Jose's 70-student single-sex academy for 9th and 10th graders on the sprawling, 2,300-student campus of Andrew P. Hill High. "It's exciting to focus on the progress of a small group of students," she adds. "It's not for everyone, but for some students and teachers, it works."

In many ways, that's what the governor and others who championed the program hope to gain from such experiments: They want to create a public school system in which there are many more options for students and parents than schools traditionally have offered.

Andrew Hill's principal, Bruce Shimizu, agrees. The single-sex program "speaks to the school's willingness to try new programs," he says, citing the school's new dress code and its magnet program in the health sciences as other innovations. "Even if it doesn't grow, if 40 or 50 students are benefiting each year, it would be worthwhile to keep it."

In addition to seeking out private grants, Lee is looking into the possibility of securing funds by positioning the high school's academy as a charter school.

At Marina Middle School, Michaelson says parents and students have liked the program. "It's more cohesive and less distracting," and some evidence suggests that test scores and grades are creeping up for enrollees, he says.

Despite such anecdotal evidence, the academic benefits of single-sex education in the public school world remain largely unproven.

And some critics of such experiments with single-sex schooling point out that merely separating students by gender won't in itself eliminate the other problems that plague some public schools, problems like inexperienced teachers, outmoded facilities, and large and sometimes unmanageable classes.

"No one knows enough about who it's good for and who it's not good for," says Fred A. Mael, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, based in Washington, who recently wrote a report comparing coeducational and single-sex schools. "And there's virtually no research on what, if anything, you will gain from a couple of years or a couple of classes" in a single-sex setting.

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Pages 20-24

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Separate Worlds
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