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Single-sex education in the public school system — is it logical or stereotypical?

By August 2011, the hallways and classrooms of the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy at B.F. Darrell will be bustling with 200-plus adolescent boys, sixth through ninth grades. The magnet school — the students must meet selection criteria — will feature a robotics laboratory, mandatory Latin for middle-grade students, and electives such as Mandarin Chinese, lacrosse and golf. As the students advance into the upper grades, the school will expand to eventually teach more than 400 boys through 12th grade.

Single-sex education is not a new concept in the Dallas Independent School District. A similarly structured girls’ school was launched in 2004. “It has taken six years to happen for our young men,” Douglas says. “If we can have this type of opportunity for our young ladies, we should be able to do the same for our young men.”

Boys-only public schools, which didn’t exist a decade ago, are opening their doors around the country, spawned by a legal shift that dates back to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 and became widely known for its testing provisions. It’s a controversial trend that has resulted in sometimes highly contentious arguments along legal and other lines, even as the schools continue to proliferate.

[iamge:3:right]Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas paved the way for public funding for single-sex schools when she introduced an amendment to the NCLB education act. According to the provision, which garnered some bipartisan support, including that of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton from New York, public money could be used to finance various innovative educational initiatives, among them “programs to provide same-gender schools and classrooms.” In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education issued related regulations to amend components of Title IX — the law that was designed to guard against sex discrimination in federally assisted educational programs. The regulations provided more flexibility for single-sex programs while also requiring that they meet a specific educational objective and provide a “substantially equal” coed alternative. Another key element: The all-boys or all-girls option must be voluntary.

Fast-forward a few years, and according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, by late 2010, the American public school system included at least 520 public single-sex classrooms or single-sex schools, with the opening of about 45 all-boys public schools (in 2002, there were none). Those statistics, which only reflect schools the association learns about, are “certainly an undercount,” says Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., the group’s founder and executive director.

Whether the teaching approach is truly voluntary remains a matter of some dispute. Students can switch to a coed classroom if an all-boys class doesn’t fit their learning style, says Maribel McAdory, principal of a Las Vegas public school that consists of a mix of single-sex and coed classrooms. But she could only immediately recall one instance, involving a boy who had complained that his all-male classroom was too noisy.

Sometimes students are randomly assigned to single-sex classrooms or parents are provided materials touting the educational approach without any countervailing information, according to Galen Sherwin, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. The group, which has lawsuits pending in two states, believes that separating boys and girls violates Title IX and the Constitution’s equal-protection clause.

“The fundamental problem with these programs is that they perpetuate antiquated gender stereotypes,” Sherwin says. “And they deprive both boys and girls of the benefits of coeducation.”