School testing its gender theory with single-sex classrooms

CHICAGO — A pack of teenagers jostled into the Skokie, Ill., conference room that, for 10 minutes a day, doubles as a homeroom to more than two dozen boys. Freshmen and sophomores at Niles West High School are divided into single-sex rooms for homeroom, an experiment now in its second year.

Toting backpacks and bundles of adolescent vigor, the freshmen settled down for announcements about the holiday canned food drive and spirit week. They applauded a classmate who, it was announced, would swim with the varsity squad at the next meet.

Competition, the currency of choice among 14-year-old boys, quickly crept into the conversation.

"We (brought) the first can to be given to the food drive. Unfortunately it was only one can, but we were the first can," Ryan McTague, assistant principal of operations, told the group. The students hooted and cheered, their guttural calls piercing the otherwise quiet hallway.

"Listen, another homeroom threw down 26 cans. Think we can get that?" McTague asked.

Principal Kaine Osburn proposed separating boys from girls for homeroom, hoping the setting would make teens more comfortable, boost their confidence among peers, help them connect with a teacher and ultimately improve their academic performance.

While it's too soon to cite a change in test scores, Osburn said the initial results suggest the effort to make better use of homeroom is paying off.

"I think we're learning more about the needs of young men and women in high school," Osburn said. "In a mixed gender setting, maybe boys weren't speaking up as much. ... Now we find there haven't been a lot of settings where guys have been put in a situation where they can be wholly honest."

Niles West's twist on single-sex classrooms comes as more public schools are dividing students by gender.

The number of public schools with single-sex classes climbed from 11 in 2002 to about 540 last month, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Founder Leonard Sax said he counts only traditional academic classes and not homeroom, gym or lunch periods.

At Niles West, homeroom is a non-graded class that pairs a small group of students with a mentor who might update them about school events, ask about a tough class assignment or tackle difficult topics like bullying. The mentor can sometimes spot a problem sooner than a counselor who is assigned 250 students, or a teacher who is focused on academics.

Freshman Dillon Dawod tends to talk about school activities, sports and current events with the other boys in his homeroom that Osburn and McTague oversee. Dawod said boys his age are more likely to open up with no girls around.

"It's more comfortable talking with guys. Most guys get nervous around girls, you know," Dawod, 15, said. "But not me. I'm good."

Osburn borrowed the idea from his alma matter, New Trier Township High School. The North Shore school debuted single-sex advisory classes — akin to a homeroom — in 1928. Advisers teach one less class in exchange for serving as an academic counselor and mentor to the two dozen students they see for 20 minutes a morning. During sophomore year, they visit the home of every student, said Katherine Schindler, assistant principal for student services at the Winnetka, Ill., campus.

"If a student starts to struggle, the adviser is the first one to know," Schindler said.

The practice is relatively new at Niles West, and its benefits and drawbacks are debated among students and teachers.

Samantha Kolodzik, 16, understands the philosophy behind the homeroom change even if she's not convinced of the benefits.

"I think it's comforting for shyer people," said Kolodzik, a sophomore. "But even in my homeroom, the shy girls are still quiet."

Sophomore Andy Rapoport, 15, said his boys-only homeroom can be chaotic without the presence of girls to keep young men in check.

"Sometimes people just get crazy," Rapoport said.

Teacher Jennifer Sipiera said the move to a single-gender homeroom was an adjustment for her, too. She has learned that school-sponsored contests, such as the recent round of turkey bowling and paper airplane flying that pit one homeroom against another, seem to bond the sophomores more than weighty, emotional conversations.

Sipiera said she routinely reminds students that her door is open to them, offering one more adult they can seek for help.

"Some keep their distance," Sipiera said. "But now I have a few kids who will come by and talk to me."


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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): singlegender+classroom

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