Experiment proves good for girls

When school separates the sexes, test scores aren't all that changes

Algebra was tough. But seventh-grader Vanessa Rivera worried most about the boys.

She worried about why they were saying she was ugly. Worried about why they were laughing at her. Worried that they would laugh even more if she raised her hand and actually said something in math class.

'I didn't feel comfortable with boys É because the boys were telling me I was ugly, and I felt insecure about myself,' Vanessa says. 'You can't pay attention a lot because you're just thinking, 'Oh, they're looking at me,' or 'Oh, they're teasing me.''

Vanessa was failing in math É and not doing very well in the rest of school.

But a change in environment a distinct change in environment can change a lot.

This past year, Vanessa was part of a Portland middle school's experiment. The school the Mt. Scott Learning Center, an alternative school for students who have had troubles at traditional schools separated its boys from its girls. By about three miles.

The boys went to one school, at Mt. Scott's site on Southeast 73rd Avenue, and the girls went to another, at a site three miles to the west.

The results? The boys behaved better but had test scores showing a decline from the school's boys the year before.

The girls' learning skyrocketed, however. Their math and reading scores were 30 percent to 40 percent higher than those of last year's girls.

And the girls toward the top of their classes had test scores that 'went through the roof,' said Mt. Scott teacher Michelle Wagner Conniff. 'I think it's that they're not dumbing down for the boys.'

Mt. Scott, which is supported in part by grants and by state money passed through local school districts, was the only nonprivate school in Portland that separated the sexes last year.

But while such a step is unusual among public schools, Mt. Scott's experiment which will be continued but modified for next year deals with a long-standing educational debate.

Are girls cheated by being educated with boys, whose generally more assertive behavior in classes often leads to more attention from teachers?

Can both boys and girls be better educated, especially during angst-ridden adolescence, in single-gender schools? Or does that cheat boys and girls from learning to interact in the real world?

The issue has intensified in recent months as the Bush administration's Education Department has signaled that it may ease restrictions on public schools offering single-gender education. (Mt. Scott officials say their experiment was possible because the restrictions don't govern alternative schools in the same way they govern traditional public schools.)

Proponents of single-gender education have most often focused on the adolescent hell known as middle school.

As preteen girls and boys mature differently, boys can be loud and assertive in classes, and girls can become more self-conscious and retreat into themselves.

Add to that the onset of puberty when girls start liking boys, and boys feign disinterest in girls, and girls feud with each other over boys, and boys mouth off to authority figures to impress girls and it's a recipe for upheaval.

'When the girls and boys are together, they're both psychotic,' Jackie Nagel, a counselor at the Mt. Scott girls school, says of middle schoolers.

The upheaval may affect the education of girls more than boys, she says.

'All the confidence that has gotten them through the fifth grade É suddenly, sitting next to a boy they think is cute will stop them from talking,' Nagel says.

Kaycie Gerhold got straight A's in elementary school. But she 'totally bombed' when she got to Portland's Kellogg Middle School, she says. When she enrolled at Mt. Scott in October, she noticed an immediate difference.

'Without the boys É we can talk more freely about things,' she says. 'So we learn more.'

Mt. Scott teacher Gerry McGarvey, who taught co-educational classes at Mt. Scott last year, noticed the difference especially in math classes this year.

'I think when the boys weren't in the room, the girls were much more willing to ask questions, raise their hands, take a chance on something being wrong,' he says.

Jeanie Shaw saw a vast difference in her eighth-grade daughter, who had all sorts of problems at Portland's Lane Middle School the previous year.

'It's been amazing to me,' Shaw says of her daughter, Sarah Leckron. 'She does her work. She goes to school every day. She doesn't cuss the teachers out; she doesn't fight with the kids. É I think they just pay a lot more attention to the small things with the girls.'

But that hints at part of the ambiguity of educational research on single-gender schools. While some research shows improvement in learning, other research suggests that the improvement may be due not to the single-gender structure but to other factors small class sizes and special teacher attention, for example.

And some suggest that schools might consider some single-gender classes but generally avoid entire public schools of one gender at least before college.

'I'm not sure we want to separate girls and boys totally,' says Anita Davis, an education professor at South Carolina's Converse College, a private liberal arts college for women. 'I think that girls and boys need to interact with each other. I think a purpose of education is social as well as academic.'

Mt. Scott does plan changes for next year. Because of budget cuts, the school will have only one site, where girls and boys will largely have single-gender classes but will be able to take some electives in co-educational classes.

In the meantime, many of the eighth-graders from this year who proudly went through graduation ceremonies last week will be going on to co-educational high schools.

Including Vanessa Rivera.

'I think it'll be no problem with me,' she says, talking about attending either Franklin or Madison High School this fall. 'I think I don't have a problem with boys now. I think I'll do better because I like myself now. And I'm confident in myself.'