1. The Education Gradebook

Federal complaint alleges Hillsborough's single-gender schools discriminate

Published May 14, 2014

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's single-gender education programs are based on flawed science and promote gender stereotypes, the American Civil Liberties Union alleges in a federal complaint filed Tuesday.

Teachers are advised to speak in louder tones and allow more movement to boys. Girls at one school were given dabs of perfume when they completed tasks correctly.

Such different treatment violates federal antidiscrimination laws under Title IX and "is harmful to boys and girls alike," lawyers wrote in their complaint.

The document, which follows an earlier one in 2012, was filed a day after Gov. Rick Scott signed into law new rules governing single-gender public education. The new state law requires teachers and administrators to be trained and has reporting requirements to measure academic success.

The ACLU wants the state to make sure training under the new law is not based on gender stereotypes. And it is asking the federal government for guidance as to how the programs should be run.

Roughly 2,000 Hillsborough students now learn in single-gender classrooms, said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty. That number, amounting to about 1 percent of the student population, includes 800 at two east Tampa middle schools that reopened in 2011: Franklin Boys Preparatory School and Ferrell Girls Preparatory School.

The others are at schools that offer the choice of single-gender or mixed-gender education.

At Franklin and Ferrell, which struggled previously, state grades rose two letters between 2012 in 2013. They're both on track to excel this year too, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

Learning about the complaint at the beginning of Tuesday's School Board meeting, Elia said she had not yet read it, but stressed that students who take part in single-gender do so by their parents' choice.

"The parents are passionate about this meeting their students' needs," she said. "We really are confident that our programs will pass muster."

But while participation is voluntary, the ACLU says Hillsborough promotes the programs with information that is based on faulty science and promotes gender stereotypes.

Such principles, the lawyers wrote, are "based on the discredited notion that boys and girls learn and develop so differently that they should be separated and taught differently, and by employing teaching methods, environments, and curricula that differed drastically for boys and girls."

The organization, which launched a campaign called "Teach Kids Not Stereotypes" in 2012, investigated other school districts in Florida, said spokesman Baylor Johnson.

It chose Hillsborough for the complaint because "the records we turned up in our investigation were so egregious and showed widespread problems and violations of Title IX, we had to act quickly."

The complaint says Hillsborough paid about $100,000, much of it from federal sources, to outside consultants to help design the single-gender programs.

"What's especially problematic is when these sex-segregated environments are based on junk science or discredited stereotypes about how kids learn," Johnson said.

"When that's the case we're denying all students, not just girls but also boys, the opportunity for a fair education that treats them as individual students rather than simply based on their gender."

Parents' responses to a survey on the programs confirmed gender stereotyping, they wrote.

Statements included, "They can do a little more girly things and decorate the classroom for girls only," and "They will learn the difference between what boys and girls do in life."

Videos to promote the Franklin and Ferrell schools reinforced the educational beliefs that the ACLU dismisses as junk science.

In the videos that the ACLU describes, a girl at Ferrell says, "We're usually able to read facial expressions and body language well." A boy at Franklin says, "Boys interpret the world as objects moving through space."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or Staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.