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Single-sex class still under study in Palm Beach County as some have success


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Single-sex class still under study in Palm Beach County as some have success


By Marc Freeman

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Education Writer

Posted October 31 2006


Single-sex classes at a Boynton Beach middle school gained legitimacy with last week's announcement of federal policy changes permitting gender separation.


Odyssey Middle, which began the practice three years ago, is the only county public school with single-sex classes. Only about 240 public schools in the United States offer it.


But those figures could rise in South Florida and nationally after Nov. 24, when new U.S. Education Department rules take effect. The change modifies enforcement of the landmark Title IX anti-discrimination law, so it matches single-sex education options in the 2002 No Child Left Behind act.


Schools such as Odyssey Middle, and Howell L. Watkins Middle in Palm Beach Gardens, experimented with single-sex classes in the last four years, while the federal regulations were pending. Watkins' trial ended after one year; Odyssey's successful program has the government's blessing.


"One could have challenged what they were doing at Odyssey," said Leonard Sax, director of the Maryland-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education. "The confusion surrounding the legal status of single-sex education in public schools has been cleared away."


Under the old rules, schools could offer single-sex classes but had to meet a high standard to expand beyond physical education or sex education.


The new rules will allow single-sex education whenever schools think it will improve student achievement, expand course diversity or meet individual needs.


Participation in a single-sex class must be voluntary. Any students excluded from the class must be provided a "substantially equal" coeducational class in the same subject.


That's how it works for the 537 boys and 531 girls at Odyssey Middle. About 85 percent of the student body is in single-sex academic classes; boys and girls see each other only during class changes or in the cafeteria, elective classes and extra-curricular activities.


In the year after embracing a sex-segregated environment, Odyssey reported a large drop in behavior problems, Principal Bonnie Fox said.


Sheila Cohen, seventh-grade team leader and social studies teacher, raves about the school's performance since it began phasing in single-sex classes in the 2003-2004 school year. The school is A-rated by the state Department of Education for the past two years. It achieved that grade while about 64 percent of its students were from low-income families.


"I think boys and girls learn better in single-sex classes," said Cohen, who has two all-boy classes, two all-girl classes and one mixed class. "Boys are more willing to learn and concentrate instead of looking at the girls. The girls are more willing to participate and show they are smart and willing to achieve."


In mixed classes, "girls may not want to show they are smarter than the boys," Cohen said, adding that parents have embraced the idea of single-sex classes.


U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said last week that more parents deserve to have the option.


"Research shows that some students may learn better in single-sex education environments," Spellings said, stopping short of an outright endorsement. "The Department of Education is committed to giving communities more choices in how they go about offering varied learning environments."


Administrators in the Palm Beach County School District are not looking to expand the practice, said Assistant Superintendent Brenda Magee.


"It's currently not in our horizon," she said, leaving it up to principals to schedule boys or girls-only classes at their schools. The earliest changes could occur is August.


Charter schools also are free to try single-sex education under the federal rules.


At C-rated Watkins Middle, about half of the sixth grade was put in single-sex classes last year, said Principal Ann Wark, who was at a different school. Though the staff decided not to continue or expand it this year, Wark believes it may be worth another look.


"I'm a risk taker," she said. "It really appears to be a positive thing."





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