Single-sex classes raise hope, doubt

Legal questions cloud shift at middle school

By Linda K. Wertheimer
Globe Staff / March 8, 2009
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Hoping to quell unruly behavior and improve middle school students' grades, school leaders in Lawrence are turning to a throwback to the old days: separating the girls from the boys.

But the school system could end up on shaky legal ground if it offers all-boys and all-girls classes without presenting a co-ed alternative to parents, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. An ACLU lawyer says the district already might be going too far with a single-gender experiment it began in January at one of its 10 middle schools. The Wetherbee School's 68 eighth-graders now are in all-girl and all-boy academic classes.

Nationally, creating single-gender classes and schools in public systems has become more popular because the federal government gave schools more flexibility to create such classes in 2006, when regulations for Title IX were amended.

"We're doing this because we're profoundly concerned about the adolescents. They're crying out," said Lawrence schools Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy, who added that he is specifically worried about boys falling behind girls academically.

On Tuesday, a 13-member task force appointed by Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan, also the School Committee chairman, will meet for the first time to discuss the pros and cons of single-gender classes. The goal is to make a recommendation by the summer and expand single-gender offerings to more grades or schools next fall, Laboy said.

In Massachusetts, the legal landscape is murky because a state law prohibits denying admission to a school based on gender.

Courts are more likely to uphold single-sex models that have companion programs for both sexes that are equal, said JC Considine, spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Also, participation has to be voluntary, and the school system should offer coeducational options, he said in an e-mail. The state appellate court, he said, has yet to address the issue.

Laboy said he believes the school system is on firm ground legally, given that the boys and girls at Wetherbee are getting an equal education. They take the same classes from the same teachers, he noted.

But Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said she questions whether that program is constitutional.

"This is not optional, to be in gender-segregated classes in that school. You have no choice," Wunsch said. "I think Lawrence is opening itself up to a potential legal challenge."

Boston, which last fall proposed opening two single-gender academies, postponed the proposal after the ACLU and others questioned the idea's legality. Chicopee, meanwhile, is considering single-gender classes in one grade next fall.

In Lawrence, Wetherbee administrators sent a letter to parents notifying them of the change and invited them to a parents' night to discuss the shift, said Wendy Crocker-Roberge, an assistant principal at the school.

Only two parents attended the open house, Crocker-Roberge said, and the school received no response to its letters.

Wetherbee put its eighth-graders in girls-only and boys-only academic classes when students returned from winter break.

Administrators were eager for a solution to discipline problems prevalent among the boys and for a way to improve math results among both girls and boys. More than half of the same group of students failed their math MCAS exams as seventh-graders. The school's administrators believed that if they added an extra teacher to help with math and removed the distraction of the other gender, the students would perform and behave better.

"A lot of it is showing off. It's boys with raging hormones who want the girls to pay attention to them," said Crocker-Roberge.

Christal Rydle, mother of Anthony Choquette, an eighth-grader, said she was concerned that parents were informed only after the decision seemed to be a done deal.

Still, she said, she was pleased with what she was hearing from the school about the all-boys class. Her son, even while he opposes the all-boys class, is doing better behaviorally. She hasn't received a single call about his behavior for four weeks, she said.

"It's a great idea as far as keeping the boys and girls separated," she said.

Lisa Stott, who teaches writing to Wetherbee's eighth-graders, said Lawrence must give parents a choice, which means it cannot offer only single-gender classes in its middle schools. Some parents may, as the federal guidelines require, want a coeducational option.

"Do they have to move their kids out of the district?" Stott said.

Also, as she found when she assigned essays about the single-gender classes, not all students are enthusiastic about the change. Many boys opposed it, and nearly every girl supported it. One girl who opposed the idea, though, called the all-girls set-up "horrible."

"She said she misses her male friends. She tends to think the discussions are more centered on female topics that don't necessarily interest her. She doesn't want to talk about lip gloss," said Stott, who personally believes the gender separation is working well.

Choquette, 13, wrote an essay expressing his opposition. "A loud, disastrous, chaotic classroom. Screaming, belching, flatulence, profanity, and a teacher standing in front of the class waiting. Is that how a classroom should be?" he wrote. "Well, that's the way my single-sex classroom is. So far we've seen less productivity, more distractions, and most importantly, incorrect preparations for life. All of these things add up to trouble, chaos, and blatant disrespect to our teacher."

Choquette said removing the girls has made the boys feed off each other more than before. Other boys said they thought classes were less tumultuous.

Chelsymarie Rivera, 14, raved about the change in her essay. "With both genders in the same classroom, the boys take advantage of us, they hardly do their work, and are too busy tricking us into doing theirs. . . . Single-sex classes give the boys an opportunity to step up their game, and the girls an opportunity to focus on them, and only them."

Linda Wertheimer can be reached at

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