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Single-sex classes get passing marks in Duluth

Same sex classes

Angela Conway says she is "shy and socially awkward" in most of her classes at Central High School. But the freshman says an experimental all-girls physical science class has revealed a new side of herself.

The class is one of four single-sex freshman science classes the school tried this year to see how the treatment of different genders affects academic success. Two sections are all-boys and two all-girls.

Mary Jo Anvid, one of two teachers leading the single-sex classes, said the students are doing well, though she can't say whether that's a result of the single-sex environment.

"Maybe these kids would do well in a co-ed class. ... I've never had them before, so it's hard to make that comparison," Anvid said.

But Anvid, who has taught for 25 years, said she has noticed distinct differences in the social behavior of students in single-sex classes.

"What I see is they are not showing off quite as much or trying to get each other's attention, that whole hormonal thing," Anvid said.

Conway said that atmosphere has helped pull her out of her shell, she said.

"It just feels more comfortable in here," she said. "In other classes I probably worry more about what the hot guy in the back of the room is thinking about me."

Parent testimonials about the class indicate the same thing. Anvid said two parents told her during conferences that their daughters were volunteering in class for the first time.

The arrangement has allowed Anvid to teach more specifically to the different gender needs, she said. Girls are more verbal and like to work in larger groups than boys do, for example, she said.

Conway is enrolled in the class this semester.

"I would say I'm definitely outgoing in here. It just feels like I'm surrounded by a whole bunch of friends and we are just the loudest bunch," she said.

She added that she's seen her test scores creep up in the class, something the school will be looking for when deciding whether to continue with same-sex classes next year, according to Paula Williams, a guidance counselor at Central.

"We did this as an experiment; it wasn't some huge decision we made because we knew it was absolutely the best strategy or anything," Williams said. "Now we have to run the numbers and see what the data tells us."

Leonard Sax, the founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, said there are many factors to consider when educating boys versus girls. Sax was invited to Duluth to lead a seminar put on by Gender Matters, a new Duluth nonprofit committed to raising awareness about the role gender plays in student success.

Younger boys like to learn standing up, for example, while girls like to learn sitting down, Sax said. Single-sex classes also allow teachers to approach material in a way that's more likely to interest either boys or girls.

"The differences between boys and girls have nothing to do with ability; they have to do with motivation," Sax said.

Single-sex schools, particularly at the elementary level, can tap into differences in motivation, he said. An elementary school in Toledo, Ohio, for example, saw its sixth-grade reading test scores shoot up from 17 percent to 67 percent in a three-year period after switching from co-ed to all-girls.

The model does have downsides, said Dan Mundt, one of the founders and directors of Gender Matters.

"When we have boys and girls in the same classroom, they start to learn at an early age that there are different ways of approaching the same problem, that each has something of equal value to offer," Mundt said. "Our society is better off if boys and girls know how to appreciate and understand each other."

Regardless of the results, the school will not force students to take single-sex classes. It might just continue making some available.

"I think it's the same as it is with anything: It will work for some and won't work for others," Anvid said. "From a teacher's point of view, I want my kids to succeed, and if this will help some of them do that, then I think it's worth it."