Segregating The Sexes

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The controversial idea that girls and boys learn better when they're apart is taking root in California, where three districts opened single-sex academies this fall and three additional systems are expected to do the same later in the year. This unprecedented activity will triple the number of public schools in the nation with same-sex enrollments.

The California academies will be closely watched by researchers interested in whether such a strategy pays off in higher achievement, as its proponents claim. And legal experts will be eager to see whether the academies can pass muster. The handful of public schools founded in the past few years to educate only boys or girls have been dogged by discrimination complaints, and several have been forced to modify their admissions policies.

California officials say they hope to avoid the legal quagmire by setting up identical all-girls and all-boys schools on the same campuses. "No other state is offering this kind of dual-academy approach," says Karen Humphrey, the state coordinator of single-gender academies. "We want them to be legally and educationally sound."

Some educators believe students flourish in single-sex environments free from the teasing, flirting, and self-conscious behavior typical when adolescent boys and girls share a classroom. "Middle school is often where kids start to exhibit problems, and if they don't get remedied, they're not going to do well in high school and beyond," says John Michaelson, principal of Marina Middle School in San Francisco, which has enrolled 180 students in two single-sex academies. "Hopefully, the academies will offer less distractions."

Emilie Bigo, a 7th grader who attends the Mary McLeod Bethune Academy for girls at Brookside Middle School in Stockton, says she doesn't miss the boys. "The class is a lot quieter," she explains, "and we get much more work done."

Districts in San Francisco, Stockton, and Butte Valley have each received $500,000 from the state legislature to open the single-sex academies. Three other systems are expecting similar state grants later this year. A 1996 state law requires these districts to ensure that enrollment in the academies is voluntary, that students have equal access to them, and that they provide equal educational opportunities.

Brookside Middle School principal Jason Messer says there are no differences between the two academies at his school. "As far as supplies, curriculum, and teaching methodology," he says, "they are exactly the same, down to the number of No. 2 pencils I ordered."

Despite such pains to create equity, several legal experts doubt the academies can withstand court challenges. "We have yet to see the theory of 'separate but equal' ever pan out," says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington. "I would say these schools in California have a lot of red flags attached to them."

The only U.S. Supreme Court action dealing with single-sex public education at the K-12 level dates to 1976, when the justices let stand an appeals court ruling that Philadelphia's all-girls and all-boys high schools did not violate the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But recent attempts to set up separate public schools for girls and boys have faced almost immediate government scrutiny or legal challenge. Last year, for example, the Iowa Department of Education blocked two public school districts from starting single-sex programs. And in 1991, a federal judge clamped down on three proposed schools for African-American boys in Detroit after they were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union. The district was forced to open enrollment at the schools to girls.

The ACLU, which often challenges single-sex programs, has not yet taken a position on the California academies. "Our main concern is the justification for separating girls and boys," says Margaret Russell, chairwoman of an ACLU committee studying single-gender education. "The most persuasive reason would be to remedy past discrimination, particularly against girls. Then the program must be narrowly tailored to meet those objectives."

But Governor Pete Wilson, a driving force behind the academies, is promoting them not as a discrimination remedy but as a form of school choice. In his State of the State speech in January, the Republican spoke of his "conviction that parents deserve still greater choice when their children are trapped in failing schools."

A better solution, many critics argue, is for schools to foster coeducational environments that meet the distinct needs of both boys and girls. "Single-sex education doesn't correct the gender-equity problems found in public education," says Krys Wulff, president-elect of the American Association of University Women. "These single-gender academies are a short-term political fix."

Still, some research--most of it limited to private schools--shows that girls who attend classes without boys participate more in class, have stronger self-esteem, and achieve better grades. And several small studies have suggested that poor, minority boys benefit from single-sex classes.

But such findings are not what is motivating some of the families who have enrolled their children in the new California schools. The appeal for them is simply the extra state money. "It sounded like a wonderful opportunity," says Susan Klass, whose son is attending the boys' academy at Brookside Middle School. "The classes will be smaller, there will be more computers, and even pottery wheels."

--Beth Reinhard

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