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Hernando's only single-gender classrooms eliminated — then quickly restored

SPRING HILL — In fall 2007, Westside Elementary School launched a program on the cusp of educational reform: single-gender classrooms.

One of the first such programs in Tampa Bay, it was highly touted.

Over the first few years, the all-boys and all-girls classrooms — one of each per grade level, grades 2 to 5 — appeared to be hugely popular with parents, teachers and students.

In a presentation of program data to the Hernando County School Board in 2010, preliminary results showed students in the classes outperformed their counterparts on standardized assessments.

Teachers, in a survey, overwhelmingly said the students in single-gender classes enjoyed school more, had fewer discipline issues and benefited socially.

But principal Nancy Kesselring says the appeal has lessened of late.

"Everything's great in the beginning," she said. "Then things start to not work properly. Need refueling. I have noticed over my years here a waning interest."

Especially among teachers.

And she said there are other problems.

With only one class for each gender in each grade, there's no way to separate students who don't work well together. Standardized test results have not been convincing one way or the other. With tight budgets, the school hasn't been able to send teachers to get training.

With all of this in mind, Kesselring and others at the school decided to eliminate the program for the coming school year.

"This letter is to inform you that, for the 2013-2014 school year, Westside will no longer be offering out single gender classes," read Kesselring's May 13 letter addressed to parents.

It offered no explanation.

Neither does Kesselring's followup letter, sent Friday: "A few weeks ago, you received a letter from me advising you that Westside would no longer have single gender classes. This is not the case."

Saying Westside will continue the program for second through fifth grades, she apologized for the inconvenience.

Here's what happened in between.

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt heard about the move to eliminate Westside's single-gender program Thursday after a call from a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

Blavatt called Kesselring, who retires after this school year, and asked her about the move to end the classes.

"I guess she just thought she could do it," he said.

He told her she couldn't.

Blavatt said it was up to the School Board to abolish the program, which the board approved in 2007, before Kesseling became Westside's principal.

"It's the board's decision," he said. "The board started the program."

Blavatt said nobody involved in curriculum at the district level — including himself and assistant superintendent Ken Pritz — knew about the change.

"This just cannot be done," he said he told Kesselring on Thursday.

The new letter went home the next day.

Kesselring said she was unaware of the approval process.

Blavatt said Kesselring did not produce any data or information to show that the program wasn't working.

"I have nothing that indicated that there was any concern or problem. I haven't heard any negatives," he said. "In absence of it, I don't know how you could end the program."

Blavatt said he has talked with Kesselring and didn't know if there would be any further action on the issue.

"At this point," he said, "that's where it stands."

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

Hernando's only single-gender classrooms eliminated — then quickly restored 05/31/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 31, 2013 8:54pm]
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