Austin Bailey was psyched about starting fifth grade on Wednesday.
“All my friends are in this class, and there are no girls to bug you,” said Austin, whose classroom door at India Hook Elementary sports pirate skulls and crossed swords.
At the all-girl class next door, a multi colored pirate ship has dolphins jumping alongside and a sail saying “Welcome aboard!” Rebecca Evans and Hannah Simpson are equally happy to be there, saying they'll do better without boys picking on them.
These 10-year-olds are part of a trend that's booming in South Carolina and spilling into Mecklenburg County: Separating adolescent genders so teaching can be tailored to different brains and bodies.
Boys are more likely than girls to flunk classes, rack up discipline violations, be assigned to special education and drop out. Some say that's because traditional classrooms set boys up for failure by demanding that they sit still, keep quiet and focus for long stretches of time.
S.C. takes lead
In 2006, federal regulations authorized single-sex classes in public schools. This year almost 450 schools nationwide will offer them, according to the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education.
About 200 are in South Carolina.
Last year David Chadwell, a former S.C. teacher, became the nation's first state official dedicated to promoting the concept. State Superintendent Jim Rex tapped him as part of South Carolina's public school choice movement.
This week Chadwell spoke to faculty and parents at South Charlotte Middle and Hopewell High. Both schools will introduce all-boy and all-girl classes Monday.
Neither South Carolina nor the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools have data to bolster hopes that test scores, behavior and attendance will improve when boys and girls are split. But they'll be tracking students this year.
Segregation of any kind can be controversial, Chadwell says. When he spoke Tuesday about the “drama” that ensues when girls interpret tones of voice, he got a sharp rebuke from a woman on Hopewell's faculty: “That's the same illogical stuff that says women can't be principals or president.”
Chadwell said he's not talking about limiting anyone. Separate classrooms are designed to break down stereotypes.
“There's nothing about gender differences that says boys and girls can't learn the same things,” he said.
Or as India Hook teacher Nikki Godfrey-Hill says, her boys and Carman Austin's girls are on different roads to the same destination. “My road is a lot different from hers and a lot noisier.”
Austin and Godfrey-Hill attended a talk by Chadwell last year. As he described what works for boys and girls, they kept whispering to each other.
Austin – soft-spoken, well organized, given to focusing on a task until it's finished – realized she's a natural girl teacher.
Godfrey-Hill, who loves roller-blading and hunting, realized that the loud, fast-paced personality that had hindered her as a child could be a plus in teaching males.
As she took her 17 boys through first-day paperwork and rules, she peppered them with quips, fist-bumps and high-fives. They began to realize they wouldn't get in trouble for making a little noise.
“Capiche?” she asked them after giving instructions.
“Capiche!” they called back.
She took them through the list of things they can't bring to school.
“The next one I hope we don't have to worry about in here,” she said.
“Drinking?” a cutup said.
“Nail polish and makeup.”
Cue the groans and gags.
Fifth-graders at India Hook chose whether they wanted a single-sex class; there were just enough for one class each. Students at Fort Mill Middle, also in York County, had the same option – and Godfrey-Hill's 13-year-old son said no.
In Mecklenburg, South Charlotte Middle assigned students based on teacher recommendations.
Sierra Walker, 13, says she was “sad” when she heard she'd be in girls-only classes. But when she and her parents, Erik and Michelle Walker, came to hear Chadwell talk, she found herself agreeing with his pitch.
She loves to make her notes neat and colorful. She gets frustrated waiting for boys to settle down: “Sometimes I'm like, ‘OK, can we get started?'”
Sierra listened to language arts teacher Alisa Wright talk about how she's replacing “The Red Badge of Courage,” with “Behind Rebel Lines,” a Civil War novel featuring a female spy.
“Now I'm really excited,” Sierra said.
Hopewell has put about 150 freshmen in single-sex algebra and English I classes. The goal: Keep them focused and successful during a year when many kids fall behind.
Will it work?
Skeptics will wonder whether single-sex classes are the latest education fad.
East Iredell Middle School tried them a few years ago. It worked well for advanced math, recalls Principal Kathy Stillerman, but when it was expanded to science and social studies, “it was something of a scheduling nightmare.”
Stillerman says the experiment faded before her school had enough hard data to declare it a success or a flop.
Chadwell cites results of last year's survey of 1,700 S.C. students in single-gender classes: Most said the setting boosted their confidence and grades.
But his program is new enough that he's still gearing up to track performance and compare it with similar kids in mixed classes.
Chadwell says single-gender classes work best if they're optional, if teachers are well trained and if parents buy in. And like anything in education, each teacher's ability shapes the results.
He told South Charlotte parents about an S.C. teacher who had her all-girl class wearing matching bows and doing beauty-queen waves.
“It was awful,” he said. “That teacher had to be dealt with.”