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Georgia brawl over single-sex school plan

Greene County is poised to divide public schools by gender, but a court challenge is likely.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 2008

Greene County School Superintendent Shawn McCollough responds to a question from a concerned parent during a meeting where he outlined a plan to separate male and female students in Greensboro, Ga. Students in all of Greene County's regular public schools will be separated by gender starting next fall, a move educators hope will improve low test schools and curb teen pregnancies and discipline rates.

John Bazemore/AP


Greensboro, Ga.

To Mary Miller, high school isn't just a time for study for her daughter, Shakeena Jones. It's also about learning life lessons, including the complexities of boy-girl relationships.

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But for too many of the kids in Greensboro, Ga., says resident David Neal, strutting, preening, and dating have superseded geometry and literature lessons as the real reason to get up for school every morning.

With those viewpoints as bookends, a bold plan to segregate Greene County schools by gender has divided a district long known for abysmal test scores and high dropout rates.

The question now confronting school leaders here on the shores of Lake Oconee is one that could face other small, poor, and minority schools both in and beyond the South: Is it advisable, or even legal, to mandate single-sex education, even when research shows that students' academic performance could improve when taught in such a setting?

"Some districts may be moving in this direction in an act of desperation," says Richard Kahlenberg, an education scholar at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan policy think tank in New York.

The Greene County School District is among the top per-pupil spenders in Georgia. Yet on local benchmark assessment tests, high school students here, on average, get only about half the questions right on subjects ranging from social studies to algebra.

At the same time, 30 percent of students, mostly boys, drop out of school before graduation. Greene County ranks 332nd among Georgia's 369 schools in terms of grades.

The school board voted 5 to 0 last month to turn the city's new middle school into an all-girls building while concentrating the boys at the high school, starting this fall.

Members have cited improved academic performance in New York City and suburban Atlanta, which both provide options to go to single-sex schools. They also note that the racial composition and income level of the Greene County School District mirrors these public schools. The student population here is 68 percent black, 23 percent white, and 6 percent Hispanic, according to the Georgia Department of Education.