TAMPA — Fifteen girls sat quietly in a classroom at Ferrell Girls Preparatory School, hands folded, colorful backpacks stashed nearby. "Raise your hand if you're slightly nervous," the teacher asked. Hands shot up.
Were they excited, too? More hands. And how many knew the meaning of "sisterhood?"
A few miles away at the Franklin boys' academy, the first lesson came from the principal, who stood in the cafeteria —teaching them how to tie a tie. In homeroom, boys high-fived each other. They watched the principal on TV talk about honor and manhood.
"We've got great things in store for you," John Haley told his students. "And I think you're going to love it."
Welcome to Hillsborough County's latest experiment: two schools catering to a simple idea that has gained steam in recent years — girls and boys learn differently. Single-gender education is no longer offered only behind private or parochial school walls.
The public school district is digging into the concept in hopes of breathing life into two aging and sometimes struggling schools — and giving parents yet another choice for those tumultuous middle school years.
On Tuesday, Lashawn Arazo sent her son to Franklin and her daughter to Ferrell.
"I thank God for the opportunity," she said.
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Each of the new magnet schools has room for 400 students. And kids are coming to the east Tampa campuses from places as far flung as east Hillsborough and New Tampa, leaving their homes at the break of dawn to get there on time.
Sylvia Guion sent her son to Franklin from Plant City, about a 40-mile round trip. "That shows you how dedicated we are," she said.
Parents are drawn by the promise of a better education with fewer distractions. And there are plenty of added bonuses.
Stringent dress codes harken to pricey boarding schools, with faculty members also showing up impeccably dressed. Students get state-of-the-art technology, including iPads, and after-school activities like chess, debate and golf.
Supporters say single-gender education works because girls' brains develop in a different sequence than boys. Critics fear it leads to gender stereotyping.
But on Tuesday at the Hillsborough middle schools, it was all about an exciting fresh start.
"Welcome, welcome," Ferrell principal Karen French told students as they walked through the school gates. "Is everybody ready for the new year?
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Wearing crisp white blouses and criss-crossed ties around their necks, the first arrivals at Ferrell waved goodbye to their parents and headed to class, chatting softly as they took their seats.
In science teacher Shayla Cason's sixth-grade homeroom, girls took turns introducing themselves, each standing up before speaking, as Cason had instructed.
"That helps build confidence," the teacher said. "You should take ownership of what you're saying."
As each girl spoke, the others listened intently — only a few times stealing glances around the room, where colorful paper cutouts of high heeled shoes covered the walls. An obvious nod to the girl-power creed, the decorations also represent this classroom's theme: Students Have the Opportunity to Excel in Science — or SHOES.
The little heels dot a spot where students' A grades will be posted, and they frame a list of house rules that include "keep promises," "tell the truth" and "love each other."
"We're a family," Cason told the girls. "It's a sisterhood." And what exactly does that mean?
"It's like we understand each other," one student answered. "We can work on stuff together."
"Because boys can be kind of annoying," said another.
"It probably means, like, no matter what, your sister knows you're always going to be close," added someone else.
One student was a little worried. Sometimes, girls create drama, she said. What about that?
"Sisters sometimes argue," Cason said. "But at the end of the day, you still love each other."
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The Franklin boys embraced competition.
Split into three school teams, or "houses," the boys will vie for points in a variety of contests throughout the year. And the games began right off the bat.
In teacher Ira Glover's homeroom, boys were told they could earn points if everybody completed their beginning-of-the-year paperwork.
"Get it?" he asked them. "When I say 'get it,' you say 'got it.' ''
But the sport is about more than glory. Each house is named for one of the school's core values: Aequitas (justice), Probitas (honesty) and Integritas (integrity).
"These are the values that every single male needs to demonstrate in order to be a man," principal Haley reminded the students during morning announcements.
Before the bell rang, Glover had his students perform some light callisthenics, extending their arms and rotating their hands in opposite circular motions.
By then they were used to moving around. Glover had been encouraging it at regular intervals.
That's part of teacher training, said Susan King, the district's magnet program supervisor. Boys' teachers are supposed to speak in louder tones. They're supposed to ask the kids what they think instead of how they feel. And motion is everything.
"If they want to stand up, they can stand up," said geography teacher Troy Vasaturo. "They can sit Indian-style. We don't expect them to sit still. Boys tend to tap their pencils. That annoys the female students. The other boys, they don't even notice it."
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By the end of the day, Franklin boys who had looked terrified at drop-off were noticeably more relaxed. Shirt-tails spilled out of khaki pants. Nervous hands loosened collars.
It was much the same at Ferrell, where once-nervous girls had made plenty of friends. They waited in a straight line beside the school's pick-up roundabout, chatting and laughing as they watched for their parents.
Eighth-grader Carlie Edouard, who didn't know what to expect from the all-girls world when her dad dropped her off that morning, said sometime during the school day she forgot about the boys.
"It's like, by the end of the day I got used to it," Edouard said.
Times staff writer Stephanie Wang contributed to this report. Reach Marlene Sokol at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3356. Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or 813-226-3337.