It’s common for male and female students to be separated in locker rooms, bathrooms, and for some organized sports. However, some schools are expanding the separation from being on different teams to being in different classrooms.
Until the 1950s, separating boys from girls was a common practice in schools, mainly for religious reasons or because of tradition. While some private schools continued the practice, it was rarely found in U.S. public schools. However, there has been a resurgence of single-sex classrooms in public schools. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education reports 520 public schools with such policies in the United States.
Proponents of gender segregation believe that such classrooms benefit boys and girls because teaching strategies can be tailored to each gender. They argue that because boys’ and girls’ brains develop differently, they require different instruction to maximize their absorption and retention of information.
The director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Lenora Lapidus, believes that gender segregation is problematic because “not all girls are exactly the same and not all boys are exactly the same.” Rosemary Salomone, professor of law at St. John’s University in New York, agrees that while gender stereotypes can be harmful, single-sex schools can be beneficial for many children.
Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, a public charter school in Northeast Indianapolis for grades 6 through 12, segregates academic classes for its younger students. Juniors and seniors are not segregated, and neither are elective classes such as gym, art and music.
According to Principal Marcus Robinson, classes at Tindley became segregated within the first few months of the school’s opening in 2004. Robinson explained that girls and boys had been separated to have discussions about hygiene, and he observed that students were much calmer and more focused among their own gender than in regular, coed classes. Since the school population was half boys and half girls, Tindley experimented with separating them for academic classes, and the transition worked so well that single-gender classes were adopted for grades 6 through 10, he said.
Students at Tindley have mixed feelings about the policy: While they say their grades have improved, they miss the variety of perspectives and competition they would have in mixed classes.
Overall, the policy has been positive, resulting in better grades and fewer distractions, says Ja’Quay Collyear, 17. “I think when we’re segregated, we do learn or pay attention a little bit more than we do when we’re together, so that is a major change. People’s grades go up ’cause you’re not in class trying to impress that boy or girl you like by trying to act silly.”
That was the case for Myia Girton, 16, who had mixed classes her freshman year. “I liked it better than being segregated, but it kind of affected my grades,” she said, adding that she was happy to be in all-girls classes the following year. “I can stay focused more.”
“We get more work done,” added Jasmine Otam, 17. “With boys, they play so much. They can’t take anything seriously.”
Demetrius Collins, 17, explained that there isn’t as much pressure to look good in a class with just boys, “It’s a very different experience. Like you feel more at ease, more comfortable ’cause with girls you always have to feel like, ‘Oh well, I can’t do certain things ’cause they might laugh at me’ or something. With all dudes in class, you can kind of relax.”
On the other hand, students say they do miss out on the variety of opinions that comes with a mixed class. Gabrielle White, 17, says she gets tired of hearing what seems like the same voices over and over again, “It’s like, ‘Oh, this is getting boring, I’m just listening to myself talk through somebody else.’ When you hear a guy talk and you hear a guy’s perspective, you can respect that. And it’s not just based off of just because he is a boy; it’s based off of someone else’s perspective.”
Demetrius recalls a time when his class would have benefited from a female perspective. “We talked about abortion. All the boys’ opinions were completely the same, and we thought the girls were too, but we couldn’t ask them. We couldn’t get their perspective. So when we talked to them and they told us differently, we were just like, ‘Wow, why do you feel this way?’ And it just threw us off.”
The effects of gender-segregated classrooms can go even deeper than getting bored in class or missing diverse perspectives -- it can make students believe that the only thing important about them is their gender, Lapidus said. “Children are different in many ways, and the fact of being a girl or a boy is not the most important difference. And by having any classes in the school that do separate by sex, that is what the school and what the government, therefore, is telling and teaching children. I think that reinforces gender stereotypes, so that the children grow up, thinking that they are different, depending on whether they’re a girl or a boy.”
Salomone has mixed emotions about the policy. She had a positive experience attending an all-girls high school, and she has studied students at other single-sex schools who have said they have found both camaraderie and discipline in such environments. However, “it really can lead to these harmful gender stereotypes that all girls are one way and all boys are the other.”
J.J. Brazley, 16, says he has seen evidence of stereotyping at his school. “They (teachers) feel as though they can go (into a subject) to a deeper level with the females because they’re more comfortable with them. But with the boys, they feel as though they got to have a certain line they can’t cross because they know we get out of control.”
While all of the students appreciate the discipline they learned at Tindley, Lapidus and Salomone have recommendations for schools considering gender segregation. First, it should be optional and available to all students who think they might benefit from it, Salomone says. “It should be there for those families and for those students who choose it. And it should be there in the form of public schooling, which is free, because we do have many private schools that are all-boys and all-girls.”
Lapidus also advises that schools keep individual differences in mind. “What’s most important is that each individual child is taught and provided the opportunities that she or he needs in order to learn best, rather than being grouped according to one’s sex.”
Contributing to this story are assistant editor Raksha Ramesh, 16, and reporters Izabella Robinson, 12, Carmela Verderame, 11, and Lisa von Werder, 12.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press