SPRING HILL — A little more than six years ago, Westside Elementary School embarked on a trailblazing experiment based on a rather simple premise: Boys and girls don't always learn best when they're together.
Citing research that shows the best learning environment for one gender isn't always ideal for the other and that the two genders tend to distract each other, the school started offering all-girls and all-boys classrooms at each grade level, becoming one of the first schools in the Tampa Bay area to do so.
The pilot program received favorable reviews over the first few years. Administrators said students seemed to be gaining in segregated settings, in many cases outperforming their counterparts in mixed-gender settings at Westside. Parents, teachers and students appeared to love the program.
But by the end of last school year, the appeal of program seemed to have lessened — at least for some.
Then-Westside principal Nancy Kesselring said she noticed waning interest among teachers, that there wasn't money available to send teachers for training and that standardized test results in the single-gender classrooms were not convincing.
In May, she and others decided to ax the program — only to be told shortly thereafter that they didn't have authority to eliminate the classes. So they continued, although for only grades 2 to 5.
This school year, with a new principal at the helm, Westside is breathing new life back into the program.
"We're going to do it, and we're going to do it well," said principal Gina Michalicka, who took over for Kesselring, who retired. "We are continuing the program."
Michalicka says they are bringing back more in-house professional development for teachers and restarting a committee to meet and discuss issues surrounding single-gender classrooms. She says there is tremendous teacher buy-in — teachers who truly believe there are academic, behavioral and developmental benefits to separating the sexes.
"It is a passion for them to do it," Michalicka said. "They have seen success throughout the years."
What a difference a few months make.
Kesselring said the testing data for the single-gender classrooms was mixed.
"Some areas have shown gains; however the gains have not been consistent and sustained over time," she wrote, summarizing test data from 2010 to 2013. "The decision to eliminate the single-gender program was based on these results as well as the inability to expand the program to more than one class of each gender at each grade level. Having only one class of each gender at each grade level has resulted in an increase in some social as well as some discipline issues."
Michalicka, looking at the same data, has a much rosier outlook.
While acknowledging that mixed-gender classes sometimes performed better on tests, "by far, when you look at this, you see there's a lot of success with the program," she said.
The school, she said, also looks at other gains: social, behavioral, the general well-being of the student.
A review of the past three years of math, science and reading test data appears to support Michalicka's conclusion. While not universal, the single-gender classes generally outperformed those in mixed classrooms. That was especially true during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.
During 2010-11, the fourth year of the program, the results were very apparent. On standardized reading exams, the boys and girls classes did better than the mixed-gender classrooms at every grade level except for kindergarten. In math, the single-gender classrooms beat their counterparts for all six grade levels — kindergarten through fifth. In science, the separate boys and girls classes bested mixed classes at two of three grade levels.
The following year, 2011-12, the results weren't quite as dramatic, but the single-gender classrooms still generally did better. The same was true for the past school year.
Teachers and students in the classes say there are a lot of benefits, beyond test scores, to separating the sexes.
Dee Cardenas, a single-gender teacher since the inception of the program, said research shows that boys and girls learn differently, and she's noticed a stark contrast between her single-sex and mixed-gender classes.
"They don't run as smoothly in my opinion," she said of the mixed classes. "It seems to run smoother with either the all girls or the all boys because their needs are being met."
Melissa Tomlinson, a single-gender teacher who also had a child in the program, said it allowed her son to be exactly who he needed to be.
"He wasn't stifled from just being a boy," she said. "He needed to move. He needed to tap. He was allowed to just be a boy."
Ten-year-old Jade McCabe has been in both types of classrooms. Although she excelled in both, she definitely prefers being in the all-girl environment.
"The boys are always loud and stuff," she said. "I find it very easy to learn in the all-girls class."
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.