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Maine Lawmaker Proposes Allowing Single-Gender Classes in Public Schools
03/14/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A Sanford state senator is convinced that separating girls and boys in some school classes can offer a better learning environment for many students, who can become easily distracted by members of the opposite sex. Sen. John Tuttle says single-gender classes were successful when they were initially launched at a school in his hometown. But as A.J. Higgins reports, Maine civil liberties advocates oppose the bill, saying separate education falls short of equal education.

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Madison McFarland achieved near-celebrity status among other girls in her Sanford neighborhood when she became a member of the first sixth grade group at the Willard School to enroll in an all-girl class.

"I have a lot of little girl neighbors," McFarland said. "Once I was in it, they were all really excited and they were all like, 'Oh, I hope my name gets chosen, I hope it gets chosen.' They were ecstatic about getting to do it, and they were like, 'Oh, what's it like, what do we get to do?' So everyone who was on the waiting list was absolutely excited to even have the opportunity."

But the Sanford school abandoned the single-gender approach to teaching last year after the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine threatened to file a lawsuit against the school. The group maintains that sex segregation in public schools is not only illegal, but also unfair to both male and female students.

That prompted Sanford state Sen. John Tuttle to sponsor his bill, which would permit schools to offer classes that separate the girls from the boys under certain guidelines.

"There are some studies that indicate that certain students perform better in a single-gender environment," Tuttle said. "I believe we should be open to allowing Maine's school departments to try out creative approaches to educating our students."

In addition to many of the teachers and students at the Sanford school, Tuttle's bill has the support of Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals Association. He told lawmakers he served as assistant principal and principal at Presque Isle High School when a similar program was launched to help girls become more proficient in math. He says the program does not work for everyone, but its rate of success merits consideration.

"We found, I think it was the fourth year that I was there, we added an all-girls geometry class to see if they would continue to make the kind of gains that they did," Durost said. "We found that one year was sufficient to build their confidence and get them back on track. And then from that point in time they were on an equal footing both with other girls who had already been successful in math, and competing against the boys."

But Oami Amarasingham, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, says lawmakers should oppose the bill because teaching the sexes separately promotes stereotypes, fails to deliver a level playing field in education and is unconstitutional. She says rather than a success, the Willard School in Sanford stands as an example of why single-gender classes short-changes students.

"Indeed, the Willard school's program was built upon stereotypes that boys cannot sit still and that girls worked best collaboratively and in low stress environments," Oami Amarasingham said. "The school provided boys with extra opportunities for physical activity through participation in the NFL experience, while the girls sipped hot cocoa and had group conversations. We informed the school of the violations and the school decided to terminate the program."

The Education Committee is slated to take up sex-based classes later this month.


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