Booneville Middle School
For girls only
TACO program designed to keep females interested in math, science
By Monique Harrison
BOONEVILLE – Eleven-year-old Emily Green doesn’t want to be misunderstood.
“I like boys and all,” the Booneville Middle School sixth-grader said, grinning shyly. “And I think they should have a chance to do things.”
But when it comes to science and math classes, Green said they tend to be a problem.
“Boys, they think they have to be all macho and cool all the time,” she said, rolling her eyes. “And, I mean, they have this attitude that they have to do everything. We (girls) don’t always get to get in there and do things.”
Green’s complaint is one that a group of Booneville teachers hear loud and clear.
And that’s why they formed the Take A Class Outdoors program, which is designed to keep girls interested in math and science by providing them with hands-on learning experiences they might not get in the regular classroom.
“We received money from a grant with the requirement that it be used for a minority group,” said Wilda Pounds, who teaches gifted students at the school. “We felt young ladies were underserved in the areas of math and science and this was a way to correct that.”
Field trips key to program
TACO got its start in 1988, when it was implemented at the high school. Two years ago, it was moved to the middle school. Grades seven and eight are targeted in hopes of grabbing the attention of younger girls before they lose interest. Another program introduces fifth- and sixth-graders to the program through daylong field trips.
“At the high school level, it may be too late in some cases,” Principal Linda Clifton said of the program that will serve about 60 middle school girls this year. “Girls at this (middle school) level are so open to learning – so eager.”
Through the past several years, participants have taken a variety of field trips as part of the program, with the first being to Tishomingo State Park.
Since then, groups of girls have taken several trips to Florida and the Gulf Coast. In Florida, they participated in a program that required them to don scuba gear and swim with manatees and other marine life.
Girls have tagged and tracked injured birds at a refuge, taken and analyzed water samples, captured and studied skinks and romped through the woods in search of edible plant life.
“We’ve had a lot of fun and learned so much,” Pounds said, thumbing through two 5-inch-thick photo albums jampacked with snapshots of trips taken during the past eight years. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“We’re not scared of bugs or snakes”
Girls that were once squeamish about romping through the wilderness or poking at squirming bugs quickly lose that inhibition in TACO.
“One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen happened when (Mississippi State University biology professor) Jerry Jackson decided he was going to try to scare the girls,” said fifth-grade science teacher Brenda Scott, who has chaperoned several trips. “A lizard shot by us and he said, ‘Get that lizard.’ He thought they would scream or something. But as fast as he said it, there were about 30 girls chasing after the thing, getting down in the dirt. It was so funny. He didn’t know what he was dealing with.”
What Jackson was dealing with was girls who, when separated from the guys, have no reservations about getting a little mud under their nails.
“We’re not scared of bugs or snakes,” said sixth-grader Jessica Belk. “It’s interesting.”
Students say they accomplish more because boys aren’t around on the trips, which last anywhere from one to four days.
“It’s kind of nice not to have them there,” said seventh-grader Lauren Dennis, who plans to be a veterinarian. “You get to do more work because you don’t have to keep stopping while the boys are hitting each other or yelling.”
Booneville High School graduate and former TACO member Sally Bishop said the program changed her life.
“I didn’t really get interested in marine biology until TACO,” said Bishop, a Northeast Mississippi Community College student who is transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi this fall to major in marine biology. “But when we went to Florida and I got to swim with the manatees, that was it. It was so remarkable. I knew then what I wanted to do.”
Boys could jeopardize program
Bishop said the program’s impact might have been diluted if boys had been included.
“Boys shy away in English and girls shy away in math and science,” she said. “The boys weren’t on the trip, so we had to participate. There were no guys there to do it all. Someone had to, so it was us.”
But the program still has its critics, who say TACO is unfair because it denies boys learning opportunities offered to girls.
“We have some complaints from people who want their sons to participate,” Pounds said. “And it’s hard to explain why they aren’t included. But the way we do this works. We don’t want to jeopardize it.”
School officials try to skirt the gender discrimination issue by funding the program through private grants, with no tax dollars invested. About $1,500 in grants and other private donations will be used on the program this year.
No TACO activities are done during class time, with only two or three field trips planned each year as part of the program. Students are required to make up missed class work.
Still, Tupelo attorney Jim Waide said the program could run into trouble if it were ever challenged.
“There is no legal precedent that I know of where a program is used to help women, only blacks,” said Waide, who has handled a number of discrimination cases. “I doubt this is something anyone would challenge, but if it was challenged, there could be problems for the school district.”
A move away from affirmative action by both federal judges and Supreme Court justices could also pose a problem, Waide said.
William W. Smith, attorney for the school district, said he doesn’t think the program is discriminatory.
“Traditionally, girls have not shown an interest in science,” he said. “TACO is a way to change that. In public education, there have always been programs that target specific groups. Home economics targeted girls and vocational agriculture targeted boys. I’d like to see (TACO) expanded at some point so a similar program can be provided for boys. But I don’t see a legal problem here at all.”
And teachers say their goal is to equalize – not elevate – the academic opportunities of girls.
“We want them to feel comfortable with science and math – to understand it and to know that it’s OK for a girl to catch a lizard or have an interest in marine biology,” Scott said. “I want them to have an appreciation for nature and the environment and to see that nature is a wonderful place full of mystery and excitement. And it’s not just … a place for the boys.”