RIVERVIEW — Kristen Burnett started researching the pros and cons of single-gender classes before she left the classroom four years ago.
She strongly considered teaching single-gender classes as she learned more about the approach and the new neurological research that identified learning differences between boys and girls.
Now Burnett will learn even more through the eyes of her daughter when Sessums Elementary becomes the first school in the SouthShore area to offer single-gender classes in 2014-15. The school will include one single-gender class for boys and one for girls in each grade.
"We're very pleased with the parental response," said principal Allison Norgard, who guided an interest meeting at the school March 27. "We still need to do some marketing, especially with our boys, but with teachers making recommendations, I'm confident we'll fill all the positions for boys and girls."
Norgard said she emphasized to parents that the choice for students depends on how they learn. Research indicates that some students have "boy" brains and some students have "girl" brains that process information differently. While the curriculum will be the same, how it will be taught will vary in the classes.
"We're very excited to be able to offer an additional choice within the public school setting," Norgard said. "Single gender is a choice. It's not right for every child."
After attending the meeting, Burnett signed up her 8-year-old daughter Ainsley for a third-grade single-gender class.
"My daughter fits the profile of the girl brain," Burnett said. "She's pretty intelligent and I think this will allow her to focus on her strengths and grow as a learner."
The rising interest among Sessums parents like Burnett doesn't come as a surprise to Carla Sparks, the district's supervisor of single-gender programs.
Sparks noted that the district looked at bringing single-gender classes to Sessums because of the increasing number of parents from Area 8, which encompasses much of the SouthShore area, expressing an interest in the county's two single-gender magnet middle schools: Franklin Boys Preparatory and Ferrell Girls Preparatory.
Both became the district's hallmark schools for its foray into single-gender education in 2011-12, but the district also has single-gender classes within 12 other traditional elementary, middle and high schools, including Schmidt Elementary in Brandon.
Sessums and Sheehy Elementary in East Tampa are among the schools that will add single-gender classes for the 2014-15 school year.
Sparks said statewide and nationally, the interest also continues to rise because of both empirical and anecdotal evidence of success.
"We are seeing less incidence of out of school suspension, higher rates of attendance among those students, greater academic success on FCAT, (other tests) and end-of-course exams," said Sparks, who testified this year before a legislative committee considering a bill that would create a statewide pilot program for single-gender classes.
Parents, students and teachers surveyed last year largely agreed that single-gender classes allow students to focus on academics with less distraction, she added.
Sparks credited two primary factors beyond simply separating boys and girls: understanding the scientific differences between the brains of girls and boys and incorporating specific character development code into the process.
While the expectations and benchmarks for single-gender students are the same as those for all students, the district trains single-gender teachers to incorporate scientific differences into their instructional delivery.
"It's not differences in the content, but the way we deliver the information to students," Sparks said.
Despite the success Hillsborough school districts appear to be enjoying, the debate over single-gender classes remains heated. A study released in February by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded scant evidence exists that the single-gender approach yields positive benefits.
Other critics argue that boys and girls educated in separate classrooms promotes stereotypes and leaves the students socially unprepared for real world, integrated work places.
Burnett said her daughter can learn those social skills in other arenas.
"Many of her best friends are boys," Burnett said. "She's still going to interact with boys in the neighborhood and she's still going to have boys and men in her life. She can learn to function around them."
Although there's debate, the interest at Sessums and other district schools offering single-gender classes remains high.
Sparks said the classes at Sessums will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis and that waiting lists already exist at other schools with single-gender classes.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at [email protected]