SPRING HILL — In the fall of 2007, Westside Elementary embarked on a boy-girl experiment.
Research showed that physical and neurological differences between the genders meant that the best learning environment for boys isn't always the same for girls. Boys and girls tended to distract each other, too.
Students separated by gender performed better, some studies showed.
Charles Johnson, Westside's principal at the time, pitched the idea for a pilot program at his school and the School Board agreed.
Two and a half school years later, Westside officials have begun to gather data to find out if gender classes are working here, too. On Tuesday, Westside principal Dominick Ferello and assistant principal Lillian DiTucci will seek the School Board's blessing to continue the experiment for another three years.
They will bring a PowerPoint presentation offering some of the data collected so far. There are year-to-year comparisons of scores on the FCAT and other reading and math assessments and diagnostic tests, and the percentages making learning gains, for 30 students who have been enrolled since the start of the program.
In many cases, students in single gender classes outperformed their counterparts in mixed-gender settings. That was true more often in the classes of girls.
"Girls are not afraid to take risks when they are with their peers," the presentation states. "When boys are present, they seem to take a 'social' role behind the boys. Especially in math and science. The boys are not showing off for the girls and their comfort level is expanded in subjects such as reading and writing."
It will take more time to be able to make a fully-informed assessment of whether the program has a positive impact on learning gains, superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.
"It's not always as simple as it looks with the data, and it's still pretty early in the game, but there are some indications there," Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.
He said he is still pondering his recommendation to the School Board.
But parents, teachers and students love the program, according to survey responses included in the presentation.
Students were asked to rate statements such as, "I am more comfortable learning in a single gender classroom than in a mixed gender classroom," "I feel I have fewer distractions in a single gender classroom," and "I want to be in a single gender classroom next year if given the opportunity."
In each case, the students who answered "strongly agree" and "agree" accounted for an overwhelming majority among the 139 surveys collected.
Parents were asked similar questions, and the responses were just as favorable.
There is a boys' class and girls' class at each grade level, and 10 teachers submitted surveys. They rated eight statements, and not a single teacher disagreed with the following:
• The students seem to enjoy school more than children in mixed gender classes did in the past;
• I feel the children's gender learning styles have been met to a greater extent in the single gender classroom;
• The children are benefiting socially by being in a single gender class;
• I have fewer discipline issues in a single gender classroom than I have seen in the past in mixed gender classrooms;
• I would consider teaching in a single gender classroom next year if given the opportunity.
Most of the teachers agreed there are fewer distractions in single gender classrooms, but at least one teacher disagreed.
A total of 60 students have been enrolled in the single gender program since the fall of 2007. More students have been in the program but not continuously. The program started with one class of each gender at each grade level, increased to two last year, then went back to one because of staffing limitations.
There is no budget impact for the single gender program, according to the presentation. But whether it's offered or not depends on participation from teachers and interest on the part of parents and students, and the demand for traditional classes will always take precedence, school officials have said.
Board chairman Pat Fagan supported the program three years ago and says he'll continue that support unless Blavatt gives him a reason to reconsider.
"Based on the information I read, it's working, and the parents, the teachers and the kids like it," Fagan said.
Board member Sandra Nicholson, who supported the program in 2007, said she has gotten plenty of comments from parents and teachers.
"The feedback has been excellent," Nicholson said. "Just across the board, a good policy. I would like to see it expanded to more schools."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.