Girls sit in long rows of desks as they work together to define terms such as “idioms” in Leighanne Palinkas’ sixth-grade language arts class.
Across the hall, though, it’s a much different scene. The boys in Shana Markwis’ sixth-grade social studies class cluster in groups on the floor, or huddled against a side table discussing Chinese philosophers. One boy is wearing a single shoe. “I let them sit wherever they want as long as they’re working well,” Markwis said.
The single-gender classes in South Charlotte Middle are part of an experiment that has played out across the nation over the past decade. The school has had single-gender classrooms for the past eight years, and Rama Road Elementary has had them for five.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is now exploring whether it should open a single-gender school as a magnet program, the district told the school board earlier this week. Parents have regularly asked for it as an option, especially as a tactic to improve the performance of African-American male students.
Programs such as these regularly run into opposition from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which say the classes play into gender stereotypes and exclude transgender students. They argue that biological differences haven’t been shown to require different ways of teaching. The federal government has also recently made it tougher to operate single-gender classrooms within traditional public schools.
Should CMS decide to go forward with a single-gender school, teachers at schools such as South Charlotte Middle and Rama Road Elementary will likely cite examples of what benefits the system could provide.
Rama Road Elementary has reported “excellent” behavior in its single-gender fourth- and fifth-grade classes. Teachers have also described better participation.
South Charlotte Middle offers single-gender classes in sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade language arts and math. Other classes have both boys and girls.
Parents have to opt in to sending their child to a single-gender classroom. Beth Cotton, who has two children at South Charlotte Middle, said both have had positive experiences with the classes. Her eighth-grade son benefited from classes that allowed him to move around. Her seventh-grade daughter, however, is more reserved and was able to participate in class more in an all-girl room.
“She’s not going to compete for attention in the classroom,” Cotton said.
Despite the enthusiasm, there is little evidence that the single-gender environment improves performance. Principal Lisa Bailes said she hasn’t been able to discern a difference in test scores between students in the two types of classrooms. “It’s neck and neck,” she said.
Still, students in the classes say they can tell a difference. Both boys and girls said it can be less “awkward” to speak up in class without the opposite gender listening in.
“It’s easier to work,” said Grace Kuhlman, 12. “I feel more comfortable.”
Should CMS decide to pursue a single-gender school, it would join a national movement that took off over the past decade but has hit turbulence.
South Carolina quickly became a leader in the movement. At one point, more than 200 schools had some sort of single-gender offering. Today, about 70 schools offer single-gender classrooms, according to the S.C. Department of Education.
Two of them are in the Rock Hill School District. “We’ve seen great results from it,” said John Kirell, principal of Belleview Elementary, which has single-gender classes in third, fourth and fifth grade. He said the school quickly saw gains in test scores among boys, and later found that students in the single-gender classrooms rated their school experience higher when taking surveys.
Belleview, however, will be phasing out its single-gender classes next year because some of its grade levels don’t have enough students to support it. India Hook Elementary still offers single-gender classes for fifth-graders.
A new single-gender school in Charlotte would face legal hurdles. New guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights late last year make it more difficult for school districts to justify them, said Leonard Sax of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Schools have to provide research to support the need for a single-gender environment.
Still, Sax said he expects there to be a “continual slow increase” in the number of single-gender schools in the country.
An all-boy school in CMS might look a lot like Markwis’ class. She often has her students take a lap or two around the school between lessons. Other times, she’ll have one student do 30 pushups while his classmate reads vocabulary words – then they switch.
“It gets out your extra energy,” said Bryson Pisacano, 12. “There’s a huge difference.”