Single-gender middle schools in east Tampa debut this year

TAMPA — David Zink doesn't trust boys around his 12-year-old daughters.

"Being a protective dad, you can keep them away from boys," he said.

Sylvia Guion wants her 11-year-old son involved in community service projects. "It's good to receive, but it's also good to give," she said.

Zink and Guion are among hundreds of Hillsborough County parents who have signed their kids up for two new single-gender schools in east Tampa.

Franklin Boys and Ferrell Girls preparatory academies are the next big thing in a district that is lucky to have avoided layoffs in an era of shrinking state budgets.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia chose Ferrell as the site of her back-to-school news conference on Friday. She covered a range of topics, including growth in the Advanced Placement program, new cafeteria food and heightened vigilance in the aftermath of threatened violence at Freedom High School.

Then she introduced students from the two middle schools, the girls in crisp white blouses and bow ties and the boys in neckties, different colors for different grades.

Ferrell and Franklin, assisted by a federal magnet school grant, will serve about 400 students each.

"Not everyone would want to be at Ferrell and Franklin," Elia said. "But it is great that we have a choice for those students and parents who do want it."

And there is much to like: Both will have after-school and Saturday sessions for students and parents. There will be chess and debate clubs, golfing academies, and iPads for the students.

The issue of single-gender public schools is one that has both strong support and strident detractors.

Education authorities such as Leonard Sax, who has written books and founded a nonprofit association, say the approach makes sense because boys' brains typically develop in a different sequence than girls' brains. Sax's group does not advocate total segregation, but says all families should have that option, regardless of income.

Closer to home, Elia said the district already has seen success with single-gender classes. "We have seen, when we tracked the performance of those students, that there was more focus," as well as higher scores for some.

Critics say the concept smacks of segregation and encourages gender stereotyping. If these schools are successful, they say, it's largely because they attract families who are intently interested in academics.

Susan King, the district's magnet program supervisor, acknowledged the true benefits can be hard to measure. "To me, success will be when the parents want to come here," she said. "Because if the students are happy, their parents are happy."

Nearly all who were at the schools Thursday and Friday said they look forward to a more focused atmosphere than they've found at other middle schools.

"When distractions are gone, we will see a lot more achievement," said Wynette Wright, a science teacher at Ferrell.

Parents said much the same.

"Girls try to impress boys, boys try to impress girls, boys try to impress their friends," said Geral Leath, whose daughter Geralyn will be in seventh grade at Ferrell.

"When I heard about this, I jumped on it."

Franklin's principal, John Haley, has five sons and is passionate about the subject of boy-appropriate education.

"The No. 1 distraction to boys, especially in middle school, is the females," he said.

He also appreciates how a lot of boys are too fidgety to succeed in a conventional, coed class.

"Our teachers know these traits, and they have the ability to deal with them, not with medication, but with the right strategies to teach them," he said.

To welcome his students on Thursday, Haley shared the stage with a faculty jazz band and the president of the PTSA, grandmother Beverly Mauldin.

"Look around," Mauldin urged the kids. "Give yourselves a hand, because you're looking at a Franklin man!"

When asked to stand and cheer, about half the boys sat awkwardly in their seats. That will change, Mauldin promised.

"By the time we get past the first nine weeks, you'll have to ask them to sit."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Single-gender middle schools in east Tampa debut this year 08/19/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 21, 2011 10:16am]

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