Friday, May 24, 2013
By Emma Bouthillette firstname.lastname@example.org
SANFORD -- Inside Barbara Noone's sixth-grade classroom at Willard School, educational posters hang on the walls and books are stacked on shelves. The seats are filled only with girls.
The class is part of a single-gender classroom program the school launched three years ago with two single-gender sixth-grade classes -- one for boys and one for girls. This year, the program expanded to the fifth grade, with one all-boys and one all-girls classroom.
The students say it works for them.
On a recent afternoon, sixth-grader Stephanie Lane leaned across the table to help classmate Sierra Hasser figure out a mathematics problem in the unit on drawing and reading graphs. They agreed they're less distracted now.
"There's no boys bothering me," Lane said.
Added Hasser: "We're learning to step up in class and have a big voice."
That's just what Principal Chuck Potter hoped for when he launched the program.
About six years ago, Potter started researching the concept that single-gender classrooms could improve learning conditions. He said a lot of what he read indicated boys are quicker to respond to mathematics or science questions and girls feel embarrassed answering those questions. When teachers joined him in launching the program, he hoped it would provide a better learning opportunity for some students.
"The majority of students do well in mixed-gender classrooms, but this creates a setting that's more comfortable to take risks," Potter said. "We want to have a learning environment for kids to feel safe in their education."
It's a relatively rare program for Maine. Richard Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals' Association, said the only other single-gender program he know of is an all-girl mathematics class offered at Presque Isle High School. That class began when Durost was principal there in the early 1990s. He said the school offered it to fulfill a need for freshmen female students who lacked confidence in a coed classroom.
"Based on my experience, it certainly is very successful for some students," he said.
The idea of sorting boys and girls into different classrooms is a growing trend nationally, according to the Pennsylvania-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education.
When Leonard Sax, a retired family physician, founded the nonprofit organization in 2002, he said about a dozen schools had single-gender offerings nationwide. Today there are about 120 single-gender public schools and more than 380 schools that offer single-gender classrooms.
Sax said that before he started researching single-gender education, he thought it promoted gender stereotypes and inadequately prepared students for a "coed world"; but after visiting hundreds of schools and dedicating years to studying the benefits of single-gender classrooms, he is now an ardent proponent.
"The single-sex format is a tool, one of many available to break down gender stereotypes," Sax said, "but don't confuse the tool for the objective, which is to help every boy and girl to reach their full potential."
At Willard School, the teachers leading single-gender classrooms have no formal training in the method but have done extensive research and stay in touch with other teachers who have single-gender classes. The Willard students are pen pals with students in single-gender classrooms at Brennan Woods Elementary School in High Ridge, Mo.
The goal, Potter said, is focusing on quality instruction and embracing each gender's learning styles.
Throughout the lessons, teachers work to break down barriers rather than promoting cultural stereotypes.
The girls in Noone's class worked at their own pace in a mathematics unit, helping each other out and asking questions as needed. Down the hall in Tracie Wagenfeld's classroom, the sixth-grade boys moved around between lessons and worked quickly.
(Continued on page 2)