ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Girls and boys mingled as they jumped off the bus, greeted teachers and headed into Battle Creek Middle School one recent morning. But within minutes, boys headed to the auditorium, while girls went to the gym.
They spend most of their school days in separate classes that teachers say are tailored to their differing needs. Battle Creek, in St. Paul, Minn., is among a growing number of public schools nationwide venturing into single-sex education, a trend fueling both experimentation and debate.
"What single-gender education allows us to do is really focus on the needs of girls and boys, and create a climate where kids feel comfortable," said Jocelyn Sims, Battle Creek's principal.
It's unclear how many single-sex public schools exist, but estimates from several advocates and opponents fall between 80 and 200, up from a handful 15 years ago. Hundreds more co-ed schools offer at least one single-sex class, and several experts agree that the number has risen since 2006, when the U.S. Department of Education issued new rules making it easier for districts to launch such schools and classes.
Even as the schools and classes spread, research is inconclusive on whether they help. A 2008 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, which included a review of studies on single-sex schools, said the results were mixed, though they suggested some support for the idea.
Sims admits it's hard to prove that single-sex classes have caused the "incremental growth" the school has seen on tests: "I cannot say that single-gender schooling makes or breaks the learning."
Many advocates argue single-sex schooling can help build a strong academic culture, reduce social distractions or bust stereotypes such as the idea that poetry is girly or computer science is for boys. Critics counter that it's unproven and often promotes, not reduces, harmful gender stereotypes.
Opponents argue that the 2006 rules undercut Title IX, a law barring sex discrimination in federally funded schools. Some particularly object when schools justify separating boys and girls by citing consultants who say that brain differences between the sexes create distinct learning needs.
"There's no research that shows that any of those (sex-based) biological differences should lead to differences in teaching or require separation of boys from girls," said Galen Sherwin, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project. All students learn differently because of many factors that don't break down simply along gender lines, the ACLU argues.
Many school administrators cite school consultant Leonard Sax as a resource for information about single-sex education.
In a 2005 book, "Why Gender Matters," Sax wrote of "consistent and significant brain-based sex differences in how girls and boys learn geometry and how they understand literature."
Among other things, Sax wrote that many young boys are "energized by confrontation" while "few young girls will flourish in high-pressure" situations. A teacher working with a girl should smile and look her in the eye, but sit shoulder-to-shoulder with a boy and refrain from smiling.
Sax's critics say those claims amount to stereotyping. He now says the book contains "major errors," but still argues that co-ed classes are often taught in a way that shortchanges one sex.
Battle Creek teacher Stephanie Drow said separating boys and girls means that "they act more age-appropriate." Before, with girls in her co-ed classes, "It was always about who's trying to get a boy."
Several boys and girls agreed. Without students of the opposite sex in the room, "we can just act like ourselves," said eighth-grader Chimua Lor.
Teachers said they notice gender differences and tweak lessons accordingly. For example, boys tend to be more competitive and crave physical activity, they said, while girls are more organized.
Battle Creek officials began splitting up some classes by gender in 2005 in a plan to boost enrollment, Sims said. Initial efforts were rocky. One year when kids divided their days between co-ed and single-sex classes, "They would think it was party time (in the co-ed classes), because they got to socialize with the opposite gender," Sims said.
Now, students are split up for most classes in boys' and girls' academies, though they mingle in the hall and at recess. Sims says that the academies have helped Battle Creek create a positive culture and that disciplinary problems have diminished.
But in some other districts, similar classes have died out within a few years, with officials citing low interest, external factors such as budget woes, or lack of evidence that separating girls and boys boosted achievement.
(Contact Sarah Lemagie at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)