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No girls allowed

Black History Month | Single-sex schools help African-American boys succeed-but remain controversial

Issue: "The surge is on," Feb. 3, 2007

Glen Clisham pauses momentarily from an arithmetic lesson and raises his voice above the escalating racket of 15 boisterous first-graders: "I'm going to wait until I have quiet." The room's volume drops to a murmur. Clisham, a fourth-year teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Seattle, resumes instructing, satisfied with something less than total silence.

Some students stand as they listen. Others sway side to side or fiddle with the various papers and craft supplies strewn across their desks. In many first-grade classrooms, such behavior might draw correction. Not here. Clisham's higher tolerance for noise and movement is based on the premise that traditional expectations of perfect posture and sealed lips may hinder learning for these young boys.

If Clisham ignores the needs of young girls, that's because there are none in the room. Thurgood Marshall is one of about 250 public schools in the nation to offer single-sex education. The campus remains co-ed, but the classes are segregated. The format highlights the differences between boys and girls, but, so far, it's worked.

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Among Seattle's highest percentages for low-income and minority students, Thurgood Marshall produced some of the worst standardized test scores in the state prior to its single-sex conversion in 2000. The split vaulted the school's number of boys with satisfactory reading scores from 10 percent to 66 percent in just one year. Benjamin Wright, the architect of such dramatic results, received Washington state's Principal of the Year award in 2003, the first time in 19 years that honor landed on one of Seattle's urban schools.

Wright's accomplishment earned him an opportunity to work similar wonders on half a dozen failing schools in Philadelphia. It also landed him on the board of directors of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), an organization committed to advancing what remains a highly controversial pedagogy. "School districts are really hesitant to do this," he told WORLD. "But it really does work."

Leonard Sax, chair of the NASSPE, believes such hesitation is the product of poorly executed single-sex experiments that have failed. "In a co-ed classroom, if you start throwing toilet paper at a teacher, the girls are going to be annoyed and say 'Stop doing that.' But in an all-boys classroom, that's not the case. If you plunge in without knowing what you're doing, classroom management issues will overwhelm you." Because such problems do not typically plague all-girls classes, many educators believe that mixing the sexes provides balance.

Beyond that pragmatic argument, some feminists contend that any notion of neurological or social differences between boys and girls amounts to sexism. A feminist-driven 1975 federal regulation outlawed single-sex education in public schools in nearly all situations. The U.S. Department of Education removed such restrictions in October of last year, but many school district officials remain sympathetic to the old law.

Thurgood Marshall principal Winifred Todd, Wright's successor, says the single-sex environment actually breaks gender stereotypes. Girls are more willing to apply themselves in math, science, and physical education without fear of ridicule. Conversely, the boys at Thurgood Marshall take no issue with a class on knitting. "It cracks me up; they're in there making little hats," Todd said. "Our boys don't seem as afraid to show emotions or to try something that would sometimes be associated with another sex."

Many affluent families have long believed in single-sex education, sending their children to elite private schools where it is more commonly offered. Wright believes that urban public districts should provide the same opportunity. He scoffs at the amount of time and resources spent on diversity training, arguing that real change will only come when teachers are taught not to coddle a victim mentality: "A lot of teachers will just agree with kids that we live in a racist society. You cannot do that in an all-boys school, particularly when you're in an urban setting. . . . We're turning these kids into criminals, and we're getting them ready for prison."

Wright's program often draws strong reactions from boys who hate the idea of losing girls from their classrooms. "They want the girlies and the honey," he says. "I always ask them, 'When you're in prison and locked up, will you see any girlies and honey? No.'"

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