TAMPA — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, saying the single-gender schools and classrooms in Hillsborough County are discriminatory.
In the complaint filed Tuesday with the the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the ACLU is is calling for federal and state investigations into the school district.
“The Hillsborough School District has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds to implement a hidden curriculum promoting the theory that boys and girls are so fundamentally different that they need to be taught using radically different teaching methods,” ACLU Women’s Rights Project staff attorney Galen Sherwin said in a news release. “The truth is that every student learns differently, and our public schools should not be in the business of making crude judgments about children’s educational needs based solely on whether they are a boy or a girl.”
The group says teachers in all-boy classes are encouraged to “be louder” and that teachers in all-girl classes are expected to be calmer and less critical.
Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Tuesday evening that she had not gotten to review the complaint but noted the district’s single-gender schools and classrooms are optional: Parents can choose to put their children there but aren’t forced to.
“In each instance, the schools simply offer that opportunity to parents, as well as a traditional classroom experience,” she said, during a school board meeting. “When we established single-gender classrooms and schools, we did so carefully. We are confident our programs will pass muster.”
The complaint came the day after Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a piece of legislation that encourages school districts to offer more single-gender programs.
Although these schools already are permitted under Florida law, House Bill 313 sets up guidelines districts must adhere to when opening them. It also includes new requirements for teacher training.
In 2011, Hillsborough opened two single-gender middle magnet schools in East Tampa. Franklin Middle Magnet School became Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, and Ferrell Middle Magnet became Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy.
The district touted research that showed some students learn better in single-gender classrooms. Both schools previously struggled with academics.
District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said 10 other schools in the district also have single-gender classrooms. Roughly 2,000 of the district’s 200,000-plus students are educated in either a single-gender classroom or one of the two schools.
Now in their third year, the schools have seen success – last school year, Franklin brought its state-issued school grade from a D to a B, and Ferrell improved its C to an A.
At the beginning of this school year, officials at the two schools reported discipline problems were down and attendance was up. The achievement gap between minority and white students had narrowed and students who speak English as a second language had made gains.
“Parents are passionate about this,” Elia said.
In addition to the federal complaint, the ACLU sent a letter to the Florida Department of Education, asking for it to launch its own investigation.
The group argues the federal and state education departments should write guidelines to ensure the training called for in House Bill 313 “does not rest on sex stereotypes.”
Florida DOE spokesman Joe Follick said Tuesday that department officials had not read the complaint, and that “the legislation was not one of our proposals for this year’s session.”