TAMPA — In 2011, the Hillsborough County school district took the unusual step of embracing single-gender education, establishing separate boys’ and girls’ academies in a pair of middle schools in east Tampa.
How are they doing?
Consider that Girls Preparatory Academy at Ferrell Middle Magnet School and Boys Preparatory Academy at Franklin Middle Magnet School were two of only four elementary and middle schools to jump two full grades in the state’s recent grading period — from a C to an A at Ferrell and a D to a B at Franklin.
“It’s a tremendously rewarding feeling,” said John Haley, principal at Franklin. “The energy level from our staff that we have coming back this year is night and day. We know that we are close to an A, and that’s exactly what we want to do.”
At Ferrell, “Our girls are up there performing at or above district levels,” said principal Karen French. “The bottom line is this has been a complete team effort — staff, parents, and our kids. I’m very proud of everyone.”
The schools’ success could help defuse gender stereotyping and the idea that boys and girls learn differently. Competing camps, represented by groups such as the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and the American Council for Coeducational Schooling, regularly assert and debunk research on the subject, and the issue has been the subject of numerous lawsuits.
French said that in Hillsborough, the only thing that matters is parents have a choice.
“Why would you be against it?” she said. “Single-gender in our district is a choice. It’s not a mandate. We are providing something that our parents say they want.”
Added Haley, “It’s not the best environment for every child. It’s not. There are children that thrive perfectly fine in a co-ed environment. But it’s statistically true that it is a tremendously positive environment for many students.”
At both Hillsborough schools, students wear uniforms, including neckties for boys and criss-cross ties for girls, with khakis and solid dark shoes.
At Haley’s school, boys get more slack for behavior “that is natural to boys but is very annoying to girls,” said Haley. That includes such nuances as pencil-tapping, noisemaking, and particularly, movement.
At Franklin, there are light calisthenics and “stand-up” desks for boys too antsy to sit in the standard school desk.
A group of boys working together on a project might have one member sitting on the floor, a few at desks, and another standing and leaning against the wall.
At Ferrell, “it’s very, very important to girls that they feel connected,” French said. Girls working in a group will develop relationships. Teachers and administrators provide daily academic recognition and work with students to help them monitor their progress.
Whatever the research shows, teachers and administrators at the single-gender academies say there are significant differences between adolescent boys and girls.
“If you just take some snapshots of classrooms all over the county that are mixed-gender, the girls will rule the classroom,” said Sherri Cerni, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Franklin. “They’ll raise their hand, they’ll participate, they’ll turn in their things on time, and the boys can get lost.
“As long as they’re not disrupting the class, they tend not to get attention. The girls dominate. So this is a place where even the shyest of kids, boys who would never get up and present, have the opportunity to do that.”
Both academy principals say the soaring school grades are just one indicator of the schools’ success. They said discipline reports are down and attendance is up. The achievement gap between minority and white students has narrowed, and those who speak English as a second language have made gains.
But leapfrogging up the grading chart is no small accomplishment, said Cerni, the language arts teacher.
“We see it every day in the classroom — we know they’re learning. But then for the data to come through, to prove that the evidence is there, it’s just the most gratifying, fulfilling feeling.
“It really makes you love your job.”