Gender Separation

Clary Middle School puts boys and girls in different classrooms

Clary Middle School is halfway through its first academic year of gender separation in the classroom, and one constituency enthusiastically endorses it. Others are still adjusting. Clearly loving it: parents. Not quite so much: some students.

“I think it’s great. I think it’s the best thing they could have done,” said Diana Milton, who has a daughter in sixth grade.

The city school board voted last January to separate boys and girls in the classrooms at Clary, making it the only city school with official gender separation. Principal Pamela Odom-Cain sought the school board’s permission to separate the genders to improve students’ academic performance by cutting down on social distractions and tailoring instruction to each gender. Although the school is split into two separate academies, one for boys and one for girls, there are still some instances where boys and girls are in the same class. Clary has 407 students.

Separating genders in the classroom is based on the idea that male and female brains develop differently and that different teaching methods for them work best. Some instructors say they teach the same concept, such as algebra, multiple ways for different genders.

At least 506 public schools in the country have single-sex educational opportunities in the 2011-2012 academic year, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Of those, about 390 are coed schools that offer single-sex classrooms with some coed activities, the association reports on its website. It also reports that of the 506 schools, 116 are single-sex schools, with most or all of the students’ school activities being all boys or all girls.

While reaction from parents has been overwhelmingly positive, some students aren’t so thrilled. “I have some classes like Spanish with girls but besides that class I don’t see some of my friends all day,” said Marcus Rhodes, a seventh-grader at Clary.

Jackie Johns-Shocklee has a daughter and a son at Clary.

“They don’t think it’s a good thing,” she said. “They like to be around their friends and now some aren’t in their classes. As a parent, it’s great. It helps eliminate the problems for single parents like myself having to keep up with all the latest styles — it’s tough financially,” she said, referring to new shoes and hats.

Socially things are different, too.

“School is most important, and with no boys there is nothing else to do,” Milton said. She has experience in gender-specific classrooms; she attended an all-girls school in New York City. Of her daughter, Milton added, “With no boys around it’s helped make her a lady, also.”

Parent Patricia Holmes supports the concept. “They do need a break from each other occasionally,” she said, adding that sometimes there can be a lot of drama.

Sharon Pernisi, a math enrichment teacher at Clary, said there are big social benefits to the move.

“Boys have definitely benefited from this socially because now they are being groomed into young men,” Pernisi said. Pernisi said that being required to wear uniforms and being away from the distractions of girls helps boys to focus.

Some parents have already seen the academic rewards of the separation.

“My daughter was already a good student but she definitely has improved,” Milton said.

Sandra Jimenez also spoke of the educational benefits as she waited to pick up her daughter from school.

“This has definitely improved her grades,” Jimenez said. “She has become much better in Spanish this year.”

It’s not only an adjustment for the students. Teachers at Clary were trained in teaching gender-specific classes, tweaking some lessons.

“Professional development was needed. My biggest challenge is how the different genders grasp the same concepts,” Pernisi said.

Pernisi, who teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, is in her first year at Clary and couldn’t wait to teach in a gender-separated environment.

“I chose to come here. I was so excited,” she said.

Pernisi added that not only does she think the separation is great because of the academic gains but also that the students are getting used to it.

“I think the students have responded very well. They are beginning to realize the benefits.”