Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

TOP STORY>> Single-gender school ready

IN SHORT: Boys principal defines the problem as the Pulaski district rolls out an innovative, if so-far unproven, approach to education.

By John Hofheimer
Leader staff writer

Like it or not, boys will be in one building, girls in another when Jacksonville Middle School starts the new school year August 19—the state’s first modern-day experiment with single-gender schools.

Throughout the country, there were 161 districts implementing or preparing to implement single-gender classes last spring, according to Marvin V. Jeter III, assistant superintendent for learning services.

Jeter said many of the teachers and parents he talked to were excited about the innovative program, but others were adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Laura Shirley, who will serve as principal of the girls school, is out of town, but Michael Nellums, principal of both the boys school and the in-school suspension program in yet another building, thinks the idea may work.

“We’re looking for opportunities to change young men’s direction as it relates to academics,” Nellums said. “Boys have always done worse at this level. We’re hoping to change that picture drastically.

“Discipline will be a challenge,” said Nellums. “We’re putting all the boys—they account for 82 percent of discipline referrals and 73 percent of suspensions—under one umbrella. I have two outstanding assistant principals, Jackie Calhoun and Colleen Johnson.”

He said Johnson, new to the district, brings a wealth of knowledge working in successful middle school programs.

“We’re fortunate to have her in this community.”

Nellums said he hoped the teachers would be sensitive to the needs and behavioral tendencies of adolescent males.

Bishop James Bolden III, Jacksonville’s representative on the Pulaski County Special School District Board, has questions of his own, but he made the motion to separate the genders, and he has pitched in cleaning up the grounds and has watched developments with a close eye. The boys will take their core classes in the old junior high school and the girls in the nearby old middle school. Elective classes will be coeducational.

Having single-gender classes in public schools—or single-gender schools—has only been legal for a couple of years in this country, so it’s too early for domestic data, but in other countries, test scores have improved for boys and girls when attending separate classes, according to Jeter.

Discipline problems also are said to diminish when boys don’t feel compelled to show off in front of girls, he said.

The idea came about after the decision to move Jacksonville’s ninth grade from the junior high to the high school, according to Jeter, and officials began looking for the best way to divide up grades six through eight between the middle school and junior high.

Jeter and then-Superintendent Donald Henderson held a series of meetings with Jacksonville parents and members of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. Although some students and parents didn’t like the idea, there was enough support for the school board to approve the idea for this school year.

The first teacher instruction specific to this arrangement will be a one-day in-service training — gender, ethnicity and student achievement — led by Leonard Sax, author of “Why Gender Matters.”

Jeter said there were still a few teaching positions to be filled in the boys and girls schools, and a total of 63 teaching positions yet to be filled district wide. New basketball courts and benches will be installed outdoors at the boys school, according to James Warren, assistant superintendent for facilities.

A plan to connect the two main buildings by a covered walkway was nixed by the Jacksonville Fire Department, which said such a walkway would limit their access to the buildings in the event of fire.

When it’s raining, a shuttle bus will carry students between the two buildings, according to Warren.

Jeter, who says he has several grants pending, said the district may be in the running for U.S. Department of Education money to build an all purpose building between the two schools for elective classes, computer labs, a media center and other purposes.

The project seemed to lose momentum in recent months and Bolden has been critical. Jeter said Tuesday that the project had slowed while awaiting approval by the Office of Desegregation Monitoring.

Warren said by housing in-school suspension in a building adjacent to the boys school, the district would save about $16,000 a year in rent. Overall, the district has been doing some painting and sprucing up of the buildings and before school opens, there should be new signs—Jacksonville Middle School—Girls and Jacksonville Middle School—Boys.

Board members have said they would expect to see benchmark test scores improve over the next couple of years.