WASHINGTON – When Fox Chapel Elementary School Principal Pamela Collins asked fourth graders at her Germantown school how they would feel about being in an all-boys or all-girls class, most liked the idea. But one girl had a question.
“Then who would help the boys?” she asked.
Most parents, students and teachers at the school said they liked the idea, prompting Collins to take her idea to the Montgomery County school board. But school officials, worried about the legality of single-sex classes, eventually told Collins to hold off.
“The county was supportive but the legal counsel didn’t know enough yet to go ahead with it,” Collins said. “I was told, `You got the ball rolling, but it’s not the right time.'”
But that could change. The U.S. Department of Education is working on regulations that are expected to make it easier for school systems to get around Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and adopt single-sex classes.
Among other changes, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, allows school districts to compete for about $450 million in funds reserved for innovative education programs, including single sex schools and classrooms.
But the act, signed into law in January, seems to contradict Title IX, which says that “no person in the United States can be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Exceptions to Title IX permit single-sex public schools, so long as equivalent facilities are available for both girls and boys. Gym class and classes dealing with human sexuality may also be segregated by sex.
The conflict between the new and old laws has left educators “in limbo,” said Leonard Sax, a psychologist from Poolesville and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.
Proponents of single-sex public education point to research showing that boys and girls learn best in separate environments because their brains develop differently. Sax said a direct, almost confrontational, approach will challenge boys to work harder, while the same teaching approach could make girls feel inadequate and less likely to contribute to class discussion.
Sax also said that coeducational schooling creates sexual stereotypes and sometimes hinders the development of girls. Being in class with boys also puts an emphasis on appearance, which distracts from learning.
That has been the case at Baltimore’s all-girl Western High School, said one school staffer.
“It (single-sex schooling) teaches girls to be in more leadership roles and not to be concentrating on the cute fellow sitting next to them,” said Sue Held, a secretary at Western for 36 years.
Founded in 1844, Western is the oldest publicly funded all-girls school in the country. A spokeswoman for Baltimore City schools said that, because there are no longer any all-boys schools in the city, Western would have to admit males if they ever applied. But no male has ever tried.
Opponents claim that single-sex public education does not simulate the coeducational environment of the working world and denies children the benefits of socializing with the opposite sex, which they call a major part of education.
Joy Simonson, the president of the Washington-based Clearinghouse for Women’s Issues, said there has not been enough research about single-sex public education for any conclusions to be made. Her organization sees any expansion of public single-sex education as a step back for Title IX and women’s rights.
“It’s possible that boys would get certain advantages against girls,” if Title IX is weakened, Simonson said. “I would suspect there would be much better athletic programs for boys. Title IX is one of the key statutes that has helped women and we must protect it and we see this a potential threat.”
There are about 15 public single-sex schools in the country, according to Sax, who defines a single-sex school as a public school in which at least one grade has only same-sex classes.
Sax said that about 22 public schools nationwide offer or are planning to offer single-sex classes, including Fox Chapel.
Federal education officials could not estimate when the new rules might be announced to pave the way for more single-sex education in public schools. Collins said she is anxiously waiting.
“I have broached the idea with enough parents and teachers that I think we could do it in the future,” she said. “But I can’t say for sure.”