MOUNT AIRY – When it’s free reading time in Harry Hanna’s fourth-grade class at Twin Ridge Elementary School, students lounge around the classroom with books such as “Brian’s Winter” by Gary Paulsen, “A Boy at War” by Harry Mazer and Aaron Shepard’s “The Legend of Lightning Larry.”
What the protagonists in these stories and the students in Hanna’s classroom have in common is that they are all males.
Twin Ridge Elementary School in Mount Airy is one of the first public schools in the state to create single-sex classrooms as a way to boost test scores. The Frederick County school board approved the idea in March, on the same day the federal government proposed to relax Title IX guidelines to make it easier for public schools to develop single-sex classrooms.
“When you go through all the research, the boys are built differently than the girls. Girls are more verbal and more emotional. Boys want to fight, argue and be more aggressive,” said Principal Pete Storm, who has worked in the school system for more than three decades.
Storm and a leadership team made up of parents and teachers spent four years researching single-sex education before creating one fourth-grade and one fifth-grade all-boy class for language and writing in September.
The classes are designed to change the statistics that show boys falling behind in English and composition, while retaining those that show them excelling in math and science.
“The majority in colleges, medical schools and law schools are women,” said Storm. “We are failing our boys miserably.”
Hanna’s class focuses specifically on closing gender gaps by concentrating on language arts, reading and writing. He employs many of the same activities he would in a coed classroom, but incorporates more movement, greater competition and increased cooperative learning.
“We get to do more active stuff instead of just sitting down and writing papers,” said Andrew Jones, a student in Hanna’s class. “And when we get together in groups and have to read a book we all have the same personalities.”
Increased interaction is a key component in Hanna’s classroom. There are no individual desks in the room. The students are seated at four long tables to allow for more mobility and socialization.
But the majority of the day, the boys are not sitting. They are usually found moving around the room from one activity to the next.
In less than two hours Thursday — the boys learned about and simulated the Pilgrims coming over on the Mayflower, figured out each other’s crossword puzzles, did a chicken dance, acted out “The Legend of Lightning Larry” and some even challenged themselves with computerized reading tests used to examine the boys about books they had finished.
“I try to make sure the things they are doing are engaging them, keeping them interested in school and meeting their needs energy-wise,” said Hanna.
Many of the books the school board approved for Hanna’s class are listed on http://www.guysread.com as “books guys really like.”
The room is also decorated with characteristically masculine things.
For example, Star Wars posters align one wall, a basketball hoop hangs on the bathroom door and the students’ reading progress is measured on a race track titled “accelerated reader tests.”
“I try to make the room boy-friendly,” said Hanna “But we try to break down gender stereotypes at the same time.”
Opponents worry that classrooms like Hanna’s are doing just the opposite.
“If you are basing your teaching styles, materials and curriculum on your perception of what should be oriented toward girls and boys you are reinforcing what those gender stereotypes are,” said Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center.
Single-sex classrooms can be damaging by perpetuating the stereotypes Title IX aims to discredit, said Samuels.
But Storm argues he is only trying to heighten boys’ progress in the classrooms.
“I am not trying to go back to that time,” said Storm. “I am looking for an out-of-the-box alternative that is meeting the kids’ needs.”
But not many schools are willing to take the same leap. Three other schools in the state, all in Baltimore, have single-sex classrooms. Western High School, a magnet school for girls, was created in 1844 and is the only single-sex public school in Maryland.
Western High girls performed at a much higher level on last year’s tests than most other students state- and citywide. Almost 84 percent of students at Western passed the High School Assessment in English last year, while 53 percent of students in the state and 33 percent in Baltimore passed.
Despite such performance markers, there are only 149 schools nationwide with single-sex classrooms, according to the National Association for Single-Sex Education.
“We had a workshop in the summer but I haven’t had an interest from other schools,” said Storm. “I don’t think the idea will spread unless the principal thinks it is an issue.”
The classrooms at Twin Ridge are still an experiment. It will take at least two years before any reliable assessments can be made.