MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This evening in Greene County, Georgia, here is what's on the school board's agenda: a plan to create an entire district of single-sex schools.
Single-sex private schools are still common, but lately the idea has been staging a comeback in public schools.
NPR's Kathy Lohr reports on how that trend is playing out in the classroom.
KATHY LOHR: At North Augusta Elementary School near the South Carolina-Georgia border, two fifth-grade students stand at the front of the classroom working on a math problem.
Ms. PATRICIA SIMMONS(ph) (Teacher, North Augusta Elementary School): We've got to summarize. Hurry up, guys. Let's see if it's right.
LOHR: Teacher Patricia Simmons stands in the middle of the room coaxing the boys to solve the equation. She speaks loudly and has a commanding presence. Other boys in the class stand near the board and shout out help to the student who's stuck.
Ms. SIMMONS: Twenty times - what you gonna do with four fifths? What are you going to do with it? Somebody help him out. What we gonna do with four fifths? What we gonna do with four fifths? Can you do it?
Change it, so it's 20 times five over four. Yes, go ahead.
LOHR: There are no girls in this class. That's because the school district here is trying something new; it's separating boys and girls into different classes. The theory is that boys and girls learn differently.
For example, boys need to stand up or move around to pay attention, while girls can sit quietly and remain focused. Boys need teachers to talk louder, because they don't hear as well, and boys' classrooms should be cooler to help them pay attention.
Leonard Sax is head of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. He travels around the country, leading workshops for parents and teachers.
Mr. LEONARD SAX (Head, National Association for Single Sex Public Education): Many boys learn better when they are standing. As one teacher at our elementary school told me, when that boy sits down, his brain shuts off.
LOHR: Sax calls it an emerging science.
Mr. SAX: Differences between adult men and women and how they learn, or in how the brain works, is very small. The differences between 12-year-old girls and 12-year-old boys are huge. And the single-sex format allows you to accommodate those differences.
LOHR: Sax says, five years ago, there were about a dozen public schools that had single-sex classes. Now, more than 360 schools offer them. The majority in South Carolina, in places like North Augusta Elementary.
Ms. MARY SIMPSON(ph) (Math Teacher, North Augusta Elementary School): Purple, what's the probability of you getting purple?
Unidentified Child: Two-fifths.
Ms. SIMPSON: Two-fifths. Is that likely, unlikely, most likely?
Unidentified Child: Unlikely.
LOHR: Math teacher Mary Simpson demonstrates the principle of probability to a class of fifth-grade girls. She walks desk to desk and has each student pull a colored pencil out of a paper sack.
Ms. SIMPSON: Unlikely. Reach in there and see what you get.
LOHR: One of the students, Julianne Moyd(ph) says she likes the change because it's easier now for her to speak up in class.
Ms. JULIANNE MOYD (Student, North Augusta Elementary School): Well, last year it was hard for me to raise my hand because the boys were there. The boys, they might laugh if you get a wrong answer or it was just hard to raise your hand because you're nervous. So, I think now I'm confident enough to raise my hand in front of the boys.
Dr. ANGELA BURKHALTER (School Principal of North Augusta): I think, it's a more secure and comfortable feeling environment for the students.
LOHR: Angela Burkhalter is the principal of North Augusta in the 2nd year of single-gender classes. She says test scores are up and discipline problems down.
Dr. BURKHALTER: We measure their first semester grades as fourth graders, their first semester grades as fifth graders. And 82 percent, they had increased in three, four or five subject grades. And our discipline has been reduced in half.
LOHR: This public school doesn't have a co-ed fifth-grade class. But parents who want their kids to go to a co-ed school can choose from several others nearby. Giving parents the option is the key, according to those who believe in this method, and it's been the problem for one Georgia school district.
Two months ago, the Greene County superintendent announced the entire district, which is struggling to raise test scores, would offer only single-gender classes. That worries many parents, including Wilmatine Parks(ph).
Ms. WILMATINE PARKS (Parent, Greene County): Everybody was very upset, you know. And my understanding, you know, they still are.
LOHR: Parks, who has two young daughters in elementary school, is skeptical that separating boys and girls will help them do better.
Ms. PARK: We don't live in a man's world or just a woman's world, you know. Everybody has to be together. And you have to learn, you know, how to get along with everybody. So how can you teach them how to get along with the opposite sex when you're going to separate them? I don't understand it.
LOHR: Superintendent Shawn McCollough refused to talk about the issue. He has revised his plan and is announcing the details this evening. Lots of education experts also question whether single-gender classes work.
Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (Professor, Steinhardt School of Education at New York University): There's a recognition of a problem, but no research or clear thinking guiding the response.
LOHR: Professor Pedro Noguera from New York University says it's a response to the numbers of low-achieving boys, especially those in poor and minority communities. The idea seems to be catching on, but Noguera says there's no plan to figure out what works best for kids.
Professor NOGUERA: And so, the question is if girls are outperforming boys, why would you want to separate girls from boys? Why wouldn't you want, in fact, maybe to mix them so that boys could have - could learn from the better behavior of the female students. So, there's no clear science saying that separate or don't separate has been the most effective approach.
LOHR: Education experts say it's hard to tell whether single-gender classes lead to increased academic achievement because there's so many variables, such as more dedicated teachers, smaller class sizes and better students. In California, officials created a dozen single-gender schools and ended up closing all but one because they didn't produce long-term results. But single sex education advocate Leonard Sax believes they are better.
Mr. SAX: At the co-ed school, the focus is on how you look. At the single sex school, the focus is more on who you are. And a very good case can be made that single sex education is actually better preparation for the real world. Because in the real world, being cute won't get you very far. It won't get you the kinds of jobs you want to be. And the focus on who you are is going to be a much more advantageous focus in the long run.
LOHR: Sax says parents should have the option, without having to pay thousands of dollars to send their kids to private schools. And many families will have the opportunity. By fall, more than 200 schools in South Carolina are expected to offer single-gender classes.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.