SPRING HILL — Valerie Santana was struggling and found salvation in girl power.
As a first-grader at Westside Elementary, Valerie's reading skills had fallen behind those of her peers, recalls her mother, Beverly. A private tutor got to be expensive.
A reading specialist at the school suggested Valerie enroll in Westside's single-sex class program for her second-grade year.
Valerie made gains that made the difference, Beverly Santana said.
"I think she would have been retained if it hadn't been for the same-gender classes," she said.
Santana has seen her daughter's classmates pull together to help one another. Valerie offers her skills when it's time for math, her strong suit, Beverly said.
"They're like a little team of girls," she said.
There will likely be fewer teams of girls and boys next year, though.
A shrinking staff will almost certainly force administrators to scale back the program to one class for each gender at each grade level, principal Charles Johnson said.
Johnson had expanded to two classes at each grade level this year after interest from parents and teachers swelled. That accounted for about 440 children, including one class at the kindergarten level — or nearly half of the school's population.
Johnson, who lobbied the School Board to open a pilot program at his school on Applegate Drive, had hoped to add more classes, not cut them.
He acknowledged it's disappointing to go backward. The program is working, he said, and now some students will have to go back to traditional classrooms, and others who'd hoped to give it a try will have to wait.
"I don't think there's a choice," he said.
One of Johnson's selling points when he pitched the idea to the School Board two years ago was that little extra money would be needed to get started.
He wouldn't be hiring extra staffers for the program, just retraining existing teachers in the strategies for teaching boys and girls.
But Westside will lose about 16 teachers next year, Johnson said. He said he balked at the idea of going to the board for more money to hire more staffers as the district looks for ways to cut the budget, Johnson said.
"Now is not the time to ask for that," he said.
A unanimous School Board enthusiastically approved the program in 2007, making Hernando one of the first districts in the Tampa Bay region to do so.
The board was willing to give Johnson a shot to show there is something to the theory that the biological differences that cause boys and girls to act differently also cause them to learn differently.
These differences, as subtle as responses to light and sound levels, can be catered to in single-gender classes, according to psychologist Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters and one of the foremost proponents of same-gender instruction. Sax's book is among the training materials Johnson gave to his teachers.
Parents were offered the chance to have their children take part voluntarily. Teachers, too.
"We've seen improved academics, improved discipline and improved attendance," Johnson said.
Johnson, who is retiring this year, hasn't crunched numbers on students who have taken part in the program the last two years to quantify the gains. He said he's hopeful the district will do that at some point.
But the anecdotal evidence from teachers and parents is clear, he said: "For certain kids, it presents a great opportunity to be successful."
Max DeRoin is a model student as far as behavior goes, says his mother, Jo-Anne Peck.
But Max was behind in his reading skills when he started first grade last year. Now he's up to snuff as he wraps up second grade, Peck said.
She credits the regimented environment that Max's first-grade teacher, Marvin Wethington, provided to a roomful of boys.
"He can provide that kind of structure that boys respond to," she said. "It's the opposite of what you hear about in most schools and classes where kids run amok."
Fifth-grader Clint Deem spent his last year at Westside in a boy's class. He said he's convinced it works.
"If I can talk to people who understand me, I can learn better and I can listen better," Clint said.
Wendy Welch said she'll be upset if she's told her son, Brenden, a first-grader already in the program, won't be able to participate again next year.
"I think he'd be upset, too," Welch said. "I've spent a lot of time in there and they've become friends."
Johnson said it's still unclear how many students will be shut out of the program. For the sake of fairness, students who have been enrolled the longest will have priority, Johnson said. That also will help keep continuity in the data for future studies, he said.
There's a difference
For teachers who believe in the system, it's also disheartening to have to cut back.
"I'm really disappointed by that," said Helen Shepard, who has taught a third-grade boys class for two years and is the program's unofficial team leader.
"I've seen the difference how they interact with each other," Shepard said of her students. "I've seen the difference in their grades. I've seen the changes they make."
Donna Urban and her husband, Scott, teach fifth-grade boys and girls classes.
Donna Urban called the job "the best thing I've done in my life." But she also is a certified exceptional education teacher, and she was assigned to an open ESE position, which will help save another staffer's job, she said.
She's hopeful that administrators will find a way to keep her in the program.
"They know how I feel," she said of her bosses. "They know what I love."
Dominick Ferello, currently the principal at Explorer K-8, will take over for Johnson. It will be up to Ferello to suggest ways to grow the program if the interest from teachers and parents is there, superintendent Wayne Alexander said.
"I think statistics will show it's been very successful, and I would love to see them look … if that's an area we want to expand upon," Alexander said.
School Board member Pat Fagan said the budget would be a challenge to expand the program now. But he also said it's been a while since the board got an update.
"I think it's important for us to know what's going on, to know what the feelings are out there," Fagan said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.