Single-gender classes in plans for some York, Fort Mill students

Jefferson Elementary School in York will test the water this fall on a program that will separate fifth-grade boys and girls.

Across the county, Fort Mill Middle School is planning to implement a similar program if enough parents are interested.

Jefferson will start two single-gender fifth-grade classrooms in hopes of fostering a better learning environment, educators say. Parents of current fourth-graders can learn more about single-gender classrooms at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the school.

Jefferson administrators decided to offer the single-gender classrooms after hearing of positive results in other districts, said Principal Jane Wallace.

Studies found boys and girls see, hear and react to their environment differently, so it makes sense they learn differently, advocates of single-gender classrooms say. By targeting the different learning styles, students tend to perform better, studies have shown.

Separating students by gender lets teachers target their different learning styles, Wallace said.

Boys appear to do better in a classroom where they can compete, whereas girls are better off with less stress and more social interaction, she said. Boys also tend to perform better when their seats are in rows and they have a partner beside them. Girls prefer being grouped in circles or in U-shapes where they can look at each other, Wallace said.

"We've learned a lot from the research, like boys learn better with a lot of motion, when the teacher is moving around a lot, but for girls, emotion is more important and a lot of movement is distracting," Fort Mill Middle School Principal Tommy Schmolze said. "They even learn better at different temperatures: 69 degrees is optimal for boys, 75 degrees is optimal for girls."

That isn't to say that girls and boys can't learn the same things, said David Chadwell, director for the state's single-gender initiatives.

Single-gender classes are just another way of appealing to different learning styles, he said.

More than 90 schools in South Carolina offer some form of single-gender classes, Chadwell said. Many have found test scores increased and students were more confident, he said.

However, the program isn't always successful.

The Phoenix Academy in Rock Hill tried single-gender classrooms but has since ended the program.

Phoenix Director Walter Wolff said the program allowed for some conversations about personal subjects that may not have come up with the opposite sex in the room, he said. Teachers also said students were less distracted.

But overall, Wolff said the negatives outweighed the positives.

"It just didn't lend itself to overall good discussion and conversations," he said. "The dynamics of the classroom seemed to be more favorable for learning when it was the mixed, as opposed to the single."

Test scores didn't appear affected by the change, he said.

Since none of the county's high schools has single-gender classrooms, some also questioned the value of getting students used to an environment they wouldn't stay in, Wolff said.

But Chadwell said students typically have time to interact with each other during classes such as art, at lunch and before and after school. Because they're more successful in their classes, students in single-gender classes tend to be more confident and have no trouble interacting with the opposite gender, he said.

In Fort Mill, the pilot program will cover four core subjects: language arts, math, science and social sciences. Other courses, such as the arts and gym, will remain co-ed.

Soon, parents of incoming sixth-graders and rising seventh- and eighth-graders in the Fort Mill district will get information about the program and how to opt in. If enough parents like the idea, the school will set up all-boys and all-girls classes to serve those students.

Parents of children at Jefferson will be able to opt their kids out of the class if they want. Those students would be placed in one of two co-ed fifth-grade classes.