US reinvents the old-style school

Separate classes for boys and girls and wearing of uniforms are the new way to raise standards, reports David Usborne
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The Independent Online
IT IS the end of the school day and Gwen Paramore, principal of Johnson Junior High in south-east Washington, is happy about her intervention in a class where a normally quiet girl had gone haywire. It turned out that two members of her family had died.

It was a minor incident at a school in one of Washington's most violent and drug-infested corners, where even entering the building means passing through a metal detector and submitting to a full body-search. But for Mrs Paramore it was telling: she had been able to talk through the girl's problems with the rest of her class, because there were no boys in it.

Johnson Junior High is at the leading edge of an accelerating movement in America's state-funded schools: re-erecting the walls between male and female pupils. Along with another growing trend - reintroducing uniforms - it is being hailed by some as a new wonder-weapon in the fight against collapsing school standards and uncontrollable teenage behaviour.

Both sexes do better, they argue. Girls can begin to raise their hands again without fear of ridicule from boys, while the boys are liberated from the pressure of always having to show off.

"It is spreading like wildfire," said David Sadker, an education professor at the American University in Washington. "I can't even estimate how many states it's in, but I would not be surprised if it was a majority."

Some schools are segregating girls from boys only in certain subjects, such as maths and science, but others, including Johnson, are keeping them apart throughout the school day, even in the cafeteria. California, meanwhile, is proposing funds for new single-sex academies.

While keeping boys and girls apart is generating fierce controversy, efforts to put them back in uniform are not.

President Clinton himself urged their return in his State of the Union speech last month. Alluding to two recent cases in which pupils were killed over items of clothing coveted by others, he said uniforms should be supported, if only so that "teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jeans".

Discouraging murder aside, many teachers hope that bringing back uniforms will re-instil a sense of discipline and order in the students, especially in low-income areas where there is little order in their homes. Most parents seem to like the idea too: investing in uniforms is usually cheaper than satisfying their children's requests for the latest fashion items.

"It helps build school spirit," explained Nancy Beazer, principal of Public School 133 in Harlem, New York. "The young ladies behave differently when they wear a skirt. And the boys, somehow when they wear their ties and shirt instead of polo shirts, they don't behave as roughly."

Though Mrs Paramore will also be introducing uniforms from next September - designed by the children themselves, with strong African themes - it is the abandonment of co-ed classes that matters most to her.

She began two years ago by putting the boys and girls in separate "home rooms" at the start of each day, just to discuss with teachers whatever was on their minds. "They could talk about things that went on at their homes, who had been murdered yesterday or who had taken an overdose in the neighbourhood," she recalled.

Since extending the segregation through the whole of the school day, the results have been impressive, she says. Marks are improving, as are school attendance and morale among her teachers. Pregnancy rates among the girls, who are between 11 and 17, have also started to fall.

There are also far fewer cases of girl students being physically attacked by boys. "They pull the girls' braids out from the roots if they can," she says.

"With everything else that is going on their lives, with the violence and the drugs, at least we can eliminate one distraction, of the boys and the girls fooling around with each other, and then they can put their minds to education," Mrs Paramore says. "If it is something that is working, and the kids are learning to be ladies and gentlemen, why should we put a stop to it?"

One reason might be a 1972 Act of Congress which forbids any discrimination between the sexes at publicly funded schools. It was cited when the state of New Jersey recently ordered the Myrtle Avenue Middle School, on the impoverished edge of Newark, to abandon its one-year exercise in complete separation of boys and girls. Several women's organisations are speaking out against the trend, as are some education specialists, such as David Sadker.

Though he is not opposed to limited experimentation with single-sex schooling, Professor Sadker is opposed to a long-term, wholesale approach. He says there is a risk that scarce resources would start to be channelled disproportionately to one gender - the boys - and he worries about jettisoning the idea that children at school should also learn about interaction between the sexes.

"It is as if we're giving up on the whole notion of co-ed classes, and what are the implications of that in the long term?"

But the principal of Myrtle Avenue, Anthony Pilone, is infuriated by his state's attitude. He saw improvements across the board when the boys and girls were set apart. "It was probably the only thing I have ever done as a principal that had the full support of the staff, the parents, the students and the administration. It just went so well," he says. "If you don't have some structure in school and an environment you can teach in, you have nothing. But now we are back to where we were, with all the `he-said-she-said' antics and the fooling around in classes."

Mrs Paramore is the only headteacher in Washington so far to have taken the single-sex route, and she has no intention of abandoning it. "Rich parents," she says, "pay $20,000 [pounds 13,300] to put their kids in private single-sex schools, and they are paying that money because it works. I don't see that I'm doing anything wrong in doing the same thing in a public school."