Schools eye one-gender classrooms

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Students in some Tupelo and Lee County elementary schools might have the option of choosing all-male or all-female classes next year.
Educators say the single-gender classes could allow teachers to focus on the interests and learning tendencies of each gender.
“Some research out there suggests that at certain ages, gender-specific classes are best for certain kids,” said Diana Ezell, Tupelo’s assistant superintendent.
Male classrooms would employ more movement-based learning, while female classes would use more visual strategies. Students would also read books about topics that are more likely to appeal to them.
The Lee County School District has given its kindergarten to fifth-grade schools the option of adding single-gender classrooms.
Tupelo’s third- to fifth-grade schools also are considering different pilot programs that would include classrooms composed only of boys or of girls. Those programs would still need school board approval.
Under all of the initiatives being studied by both districts, single-gender classes would consist only of those students who choose them. Co-educational classes mixing boys and girls would still be available.
Lee County Schools have sent teams of central office staff, administrators and teachers on two separate trips to South Carolina to study such classrooms in that state.
“You saw more kids opening up in those classrooms,” said Kathy Mask, Lee County Coordinator for Middle School Curriculum. “They were not worried about being embarrassed.”
Regional experiments
A couple of Northeast Mississippi school districts have experimented with single-gender classes.
The Oxford School District used them for fifth- and sixth-graders in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Fairview Attendance Center in the Itawamba County School District has used single-gender classrooms for fifth- to eighth-grade students for the last four years.
This year, however, the Fairview program has been scaled back because of reduced staff at the 220-student K-8 school.
Students take some classes with only boys or only girls and other classes with both boys and girls together.
Oxford Assistant Superintendent Brian Harvey was principal at Central Elementary in Oxford for one of its years with single-gender classrooms. He said the program ended after the district moved its fifth-graders to Della Davidson Elementary and its sixth-graders to Oxford Middle School.
The district had one class for boys and one for girls in each of the two grades, but could not get the teacher or community support to expand the program.
But Harvey sees benefits from the single-gender classes.
“I think the advantage is that the interests of boys and girls at that age are different, and lessons can be tailored to their interests,” Harvey said. “That makes them a little more engaged and involved in what is being taught.”
Fairview Principal Derek Shumpert said the school has seen fewer discipline problems since implementing the classes. Students of both genders come together for recess and lunch.
“In general, I think it helps with discipline,” Shumpert said. “Your first thought is that a room full of boys and a room full of girls would be trouble, but that hasn’t been the case.
“It has worked well for us, and our students have seemed to concentrate and do well with that.”
Tupelo and Lee County school leaders said that the single-gender classrooms would be balanced with students of different ability levels.
“It won’t just be a class of 25 students with discipline problems,” Lawndale Elementary Principal Terry Harbin said.
Lawndale is the school closest to implementing the program in the Tupelo Public School District.
Harbin has researched single-gender classes and presented his proposal for a pilot program to panels of other principals and of district administrators.
Harbin hosted an information meeting for parents Thursday night and said the classes could help the school to focus on improving technology skills of girls or writing skills of boys.
Tupelo’s Ezell said single-gender classes would likely be considered at the May 25 school board meeting. Each school will decide individually if it wants to request the classes.
“The research I have read focuses on this as another way to address learning styles that are specific by gender,” Ezell said. “It is not for every student, and the teacher is still going to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of each student.”
Verona Elementary Principal Temeka Shannon was hesitant about single-gender classes when she left for South Carolina but was impressed by what she saw.
“After we made our observations, I was sold on it immediately,” Shannon said. “As a mother of two boys, I see how boys learn differently.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.