EAST TAMPA — The door that divides the sexes has a sign on it: Girls Rule Boys Drool. It's on the girls' side, of course, separating two fourth-grade classes at James Elementary School. On the other side of the door, a class of boys sees things differently. "Girls are always arguing and they don't forget stuff," said 9-year-old Jose Muniz. His classmate Rodney Higdon has figured it out. "Girls are always worried about who likes who." The separation of girls and boys started last week at James, the first public school in Hillsborough County to offer single-gender classes through the district's choice program. Two years ago, Pinellas started single-gender classes at two of its schools. Now, local administrators hope the classes will improve the education experience here for boys and girls, who generally differ in learning styles.
Their brains are different, says principal Patricia Royal.
She modeled her classrooms after a popular single-sex education program she visited this summer, the Gurian Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Girls have more oxytocin, a hormone linked to bonding, according to research used in training at the institute. Girls value friendships.
Boys have less serotonin in their brains, which may cause them to fidget more, as well as more testosterone, which makes them more competitive.
Most classrooms are designed to teach girls, Royal said, because more educators are women.
She watched this week as a fourth-grade teacher instructed her class of boys to stand at their desks, write out math equations in the air with their elbows and wind up arms to throw pretend rocks. Several of these boys would be in time out, Royal said, if it weren't for these physical activities teachers call brain boosters.
"Every time I walk through I say, wow, it's such a difference," Royal said.
James started the year with two single-gender classes per grade — one for girls, one for boys. That's about a third of the school.
In five years, the school will be fully gender separate, under a federal grant that provides training and gender specific classroom supplies.
Girls classes are quieter, colors are pastels and learning areas are cozy. Students are more cooperative.
Boys classes are decorated in primary colors. Reading centers include tents, rafts.
Boys don't see or hear as well as girls, experts say.
Teachers in boys classes project their voices. Royal is buying brighter lights for their classes.
So far the program is popular. There's a waiting list to get in.
The district has no immediate plans to spread the program to other schools.
However, choice administrators consider parent demands in deciding what alternatives to add to the district, so if the demand for single-gender classes holds, there could be more options in the future.
"Single gender classrooms are a hot topic in the education arena," said Terrie Dodson, the district's choice communications manager.
She said officials chose among low-income schools to place the program. At James, 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Single-gender classes are not for every student. They work best for those who fall into traditional roles.
For instance, it's not for a girl who prefers kickball over crafts. Royal steers those kids — classified as "bridge brain" — back toward coed classes.
Some of the class changes are simple.
Boys thrive on competition. Things that work well include timed quizzes and games where boys buzz in with answers.
Boys relate to each other, fourth-grader Angelo Owens says. "We all like football," he says, which is "tight."
Teachers address the boys as Mr. Muniz and Mr. Owens.
"It's a form of respect," Royal said. They are in the business of learning.
In the girls' classrooms, teachers call on them by first name.
In coed classes, girls often sit back and let boys lead. Without boys, girls step up.
This week in single-gender kindergarten classrooms, the scene looked like this:
Boys lined up on the floor to draw the letter "S" with a finger on their neighbor's back.
Their teacher handed out pointers and instructed them to find things that start with "S" in the classroom. Learning was active. Next door, girls sat quietly at their desks and placed candies on paper outlines of "S."
In a reading corner, 5-year-old Suamone Harris-Jones said she liked not having boys in her class. "Boys tear up stuff and call me a crybaby."
Royal stocked classrooms with gender specific toys and books. Boys prefer books about cars, snakes and dinosaurs. Girls like fairy tales and stuffed animals.
Dressed in a tiara and tulle skirt, 5-year-old Shatayshia Brinson asked her principal: "Do you want me to turn you into a princess?"
She waved her wand and said abracadabra.
"Thank you," Royal said.
"You're welcome, your majesty," said Shatayshia.
Lunch is the only time boys and girls classes have the chance to mingle.
Yet, Royal said, they still choose to separate themselves.
Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3321.