Two East Valley schools trying single-sex classes
East Valley Tribune
May 26, 2007


Andrea Falkenhagen, Tribune

Most seventh-grade boys do not like to sit around and talk about love poems. Ed Blackburn said he learned this from his many years of teaching. So the teacher was surprised to find his students doing just that earlier this semester at Desert Shadows Middle School in Apache Junction.

The reason they were so free, he believes, was tied to what was missing from the class: girls.

“At that age, I didn’t want to talk about love there either,” Blackburn said. “But without the girls there, they opened up and started discussing poems about love and feelings of love.”

Desert Shadows is the second East Valley public school to offer boys-only and girls-only classes, taking advantage of new federal rules for single-sex education that came out last year. Chandler’s Andersen Junior High School started a similar program for some students last fall.

Desert Shadows started its pilot program in the spring semester.

Principal Robert Pappalardo said that so far, the school’s girls have benefited, too.

“The classroom is really calm, especially for the girls,” he said. “They are much more involved because they are not worried about how they look, or what to say in front of the boys. They’re much more focused.”

The school had sent letters about the voluntary program to parents of 270 students. Just 6 parents opted out and requested a transfer into a coed class, Pappalardo said.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education released new interpretations of a sex discrimination law to give educators more flexibility in creating schools or classes for one gender. The new rules stated that if a public school does offer single-sex classes, it also must offer similar classes in a co-educational setting.

As of this spring, 210 public coed schools nationwide offered single-sex classrooms, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

Desert Shadows is the seventh such program in Arizona.

But the idea is not without controversy. While research and opinions on the topic are mixed, some feminist organizations, such as the National Organization for Women, claim the segregation could reinforce gender stereotyping.

“The research has been done and it’s been inconclusive,” said Tempe resident Andrea Giunta, spokeswoman for NOW’s East Valley chapter. “We seem to be running around looking at ways to separate the sexes in order to create a strong academic program. We should be figuring out how we can do that with everyone together.”

Giunta, a high school teacher, also pointed out that just because a program is raising test scores does not necessarily mean it is promoting gender equity.

Heryl Kroopnick, a teacher at Mesa’s Emerson Elementary School and a feminist, said she is happy schools are taking a hard look at gender issues — but she doesn’t believe single-sex classrooms are necessarily the answer to gender gaps.

Instead, it is the individual teacher’s responsibility to actively promote equity and not reinforce gender stereotypes in a coed setting, she said.

“The damage starts in elementary school when girls ... get interested in the boys and they get these ridiculous fears that they have to be cute or act dumb,” she said. “If that doesn’t get nipped in the bud, by the time they get into junior high, then they have no self confidence.”

And she’s worried about what happens when students move from single-sex classes to mainstream schools.

So far, however, educators at the two junior highs are strong believers in their programs.

Educators at both say they’ve noticed that class dialogue has flourished in the single-sex classes.

At Desert Shadows, it’s too early to examine test results. But at Andersen, tests show promising results.

In seventh grade, Andersen girls have typically not scored as well in math as the boys, said Principal Jim Anderson. This year, the girls-only classes scored 11 percentage points higher than the girls in the mixed classes, even though they had the same teachers.

Seventh-grade boys in single-sex classes scored, on average, 10 percentage points higher in language arts than their peers in mixed classes.

In eighth grade, however, there was no significant difference, which Anderson said might be due to a lack of enthusiasm among the eighth graders about the single-sex courses.

The vast majority of seventh-grade girls said they want to continue in single-sex classes next year, but only 30 percent of the boys want to, Anderson said.

“Boys are starting to go through puberty and want to start looking at girls. And girls, who are serious about their education, which more of them are, like the opportunity of having an all-girls class so they don’t have to deal with disruptive boys,” Anderson said.

Andersen Junior High is increasing the number of single-sex classes next year. The Desert Shadows program’s fate, however, is still up