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Feds boost same-sex schooling

Guidelines ease separation of boys and girls in public schools.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Christina McCarrollStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2002



SAN FRANCISCO AND BOSTON

During the past decade, the reform movement that has swept through American education has turned to ever-more-radical ideas – from charter schools to testing to vouchers – in hopes of lifting student achievement in the nation's worst schools.

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Yet for all these innovations, a notion as old as education itself has often seemed taboo: single-sex education. For 30 years, any attempts to teach boys and girls separately in public schools have been shadowed –- and in many cases blocked – by Title IX, the federal mandate that bans gender discrimination.

Now, however, as a growing body of research indicates that single-sex education benefits some children, momentum is gathering, and the Bush administration is set to add to it today when it announces new guidelines for single-sex instruction in public education.

Through them, Bush officials are expected to offer a different interpretation of Title IX than previous adminstrations, which they hope will leave room for single-sex programs to operate without the constant threat of lawsuits. Such a move, experts say, could change the landscape of urban education, and mobilize inner cities to try a new approach to entrenched problems. "Up to this time, there has been a legal cloud hanging over these programs, and that's dissuaded districts," says Rosemary Salomone, a researcher at St. John's University in New York. "That's the enormous benefit that can be derived from the new guidelines – that these programs will be permitted to exist."

Currently, only about a dozen public single-sex schools exist in the United States. They pass legal muster either by catering exclusively to girls, through a loophole that enables schools to redress past wrongs of gender discrimination, or by setting up separate boys and girls schools that share the same teachers and staff.

To advocates, these are unnecessary contortions to comply with a misapplied law. "The actual statute [Title IX] is just straightforward antidiscrimination, and no one has any problem with that," says Tom Carroll, founder of Brighter Choice Charter Schools, which will open next year in Albany, N.Y. "But in enforcing it ... the Education Department has become a kind of classic case of regulatory excess."

The single-sex approach has been decried by groups such as the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union. Those groups have been at the center of lawsuits in Philadelphia as well as Detroit, where three all-male academies were forced to admit girls. Among civil libertarians, there is a fear that teaching girls and boys separately will reinforce sex stereotypes. There's also a revulsion at creating what critics see as a form of segregation.

Yet even at single-sex schools, the separation isn't always complete. At the Albany school, for instance, boys and girls enter through the same doors, and will likely spend recess and lunch together. "We're not trying to raise a bunch of monks," Mr. Carroll explains, "but we don't want any social distractions while academic instruction is going on."

Indeed, no one suggests that single-sex schools are a cure-all. Most proponents readily acknowledge that the instruction probably isn't even right for most kids. But it is exactly what some students need, they say, and it should therefore be an option.

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