Georgia brawl over single-sex school plan

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

John Bazemore/AP
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.

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.

But for too many of the kids in Greensboro, Ga., says resident David Neal, strutting, preening, and dating have superseded geometry and literature lessons as the real reason to get up for school every morning.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

"We looked at the data [on single-sex schools], and it was very exciting, and with the overwhelming support of the board, we wanted to move forward," says board chair Janice Gallimore. "The problem is that a lot of people here are happy with the status quo."

In retrospect, officials admit, they may have moved too fast. Since last month's vote, two of the five school board members have rescinded their support, leaving the plan's supporters with a bare 3-to-2 majority.

Shawn McCollough, the district superintendent, told residents at a board meeting Monday that he is revising the single-sex plan. He's likely to include some choice at the elementary level.

"We need to back up, take a breath, and start over," wrote parents Dwain Evans and Tom Kelly in a letter published in the local Herald-Journal on Thursday.

Mr. McCollough says he thinks that a quiet majority supports the plan, but many parents have been vocal about their opposition. "Right now, I have no choice," says Ms. Miller.

Proponents interpret the law to say that choice is necessary only when there are discrepancies in educational opportunities and facilities – a nonfactor, he says, in a small district like Greensboro with only one high school and one middle school. "What makes this unusual is a system this small is contemplating a total move in this direction," says Phil Hartley, district attorney for Greene County.

If the current plan moves forward, it is likely to be challenged in court. Opponents say the plan is illegal since new Title IX regulations passed in October 2006 mandate that parents have a choice in whether to send their kids to single-sex schools. So far, Greensboro is the only district to attempt to mandate single-sex schools.

"The key component of those regulations is that a parent won't be forced to send his or her child to a single-sex school or classroom, that it has to be voluntary," says Rosemary Salomone, a law professor at St. John's University in New York and a coauthor of the federal code.

The debate in Greensboro comes at a time when single-sex public schools are flourishing in the US, growing from about 12 in 2002 to more than 360 today.

In the South especially, conservative school boards have been swayed by nascent research that has shown some differences in learning styles between boys and girls.

Other national experts disagree, not necessarily with the results of single-sex education, but the premise.

"Policies that are going to purposely segregate students by race or gender or income or religion is antithetical to what American public education is supposed to be about, which is to bring children of different backgrounds together," says Mr. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation.

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