TAMPA — Seventh-grader Geralyn Leath was laying out her uniform Sunday night, getting ready for another day at Ferrell Girls Preparatory School, when she said something surprising: "Mom, I really want to do well this year in school."
If you knew Geralyn last year, when she was in sixth grade at a school where boys and girls learned together, you'd know what a change she's had, said her mother, Geral Leath. At her new all-girls school, Geralyn is more focused, more confident and less stressed.
That's the reason Leath was taken aback Monday when told of a new report that challenges the effectiveness of single-gender schools. "The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling," published in Science magazine, says not only that single-gender schools don't work, but they may reinforce gender stereotypes.
The report comes amid a grand experiment in Hillsborough County, which this year converted two middle schools in east Tampa to single-gender magnets. Whether those schools, Ferrell and Franklin Boys Preparatory, turn out to be successful remains to be seen.
The district plans to use an outside consultant to evaluate the effort, according to its federal grant application.
But if you ask the parents, there's no question.
"Academically, she's turned around," Leath said of her daughter. "She likes going to school. She's excited."
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Authors of the Science article say parental preference is not enough justification to spend public money on single-gender schools. Neither, they say, is the notion that boys and girls learn differently. If anything, according to the study, the practice is actually harmful developmentally.
"How will they learn to work together?" asked Diane Halpern, the study's leader. "We don't have separate workplaces in life. We don't have jobs for girls and jobs for boys."
Halpern, former president of the American Psychological Association, called on President Barack Obama to "heed the scientific evidence and rescind the regulatory changes" to Title 9, a reinterpretation of the law that banned gender discrimination in schools. She noted that people used to believe the races learn differently, too.
"Single-sex schools are not the solution," Halpern said. "The evidence does not show they are academically beneficial."
But that's not the point, supporters of single-sex schools say.
The idea isn't that single-gender schools are superior to traditional classrooms — they just offer another option for parents, said Hillsborough's supervisor of single-gender programs.
"Our goals are to give people as many choices as possible," Carla Sparks said. "No one is forced."
That's one of the guiding principles of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, which has worked with Hillsborough's educators and will hold training in Orlando next month.
"Their whole question (is it harmful?) is the wrong question," said the association's founder, Leonard Sax. "We're not asserting it's best for all students. One size does not fit all."
Also disagreeing with Science was Stetson University professor Kathy Piechura-Couture, part of a team working with and studying single-gender instruction at Woodlawn Avenue Elementary in DeLand. She and Sax reject the argument that separating students reinforces gender stereotypes.
"Teachers are teaching the same thing," she said.
That's something Hillsborough's teachers are particularly sensitive to, said Karen French, Ferrell's principal.
"You can be a girly girl and come here, you can be a tom girl and come here, you can be your average kiddo," French said. "This is something that parents are wanting."
Each school has more than 300 students enrolled, she pointed out.
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While some parents, like Leath, specifically sought out the single-gender option, others with students already enrolled at those east Tampa schools simply embraced the change. And they've seen a difference, too.
Take Franklin eighth-grader Aaron Harper's mother said he still makes straight A's, just like last year. The difference now, without girls around, Aaron tells his mom: less "heckling" in the hallways so he stays focused.
For Geralyn Leath, too, the benefits have extended beyond the classroom. "When I pick her up from school, the girls are so happy," her mother said. "Laughing, playing.
"They don't look like they miss the boys to me."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337. Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3356.