Earlier this week we told you about a bill that would create a pilot program for single-sex elementary schools. Now, we asked Karen French, the principal of all-girls Ferrell Preparatory Academy, a public middle school in Tampa, about the differences in single-sex and traditional schools.
Q: I assume you’ve taught at both coed and single-sex schools. Is that right?
A: That is correct.
Q: Tell me a little bit about what the differences are.
A: This is year 21 for me [in traditional schools] and the third doing single-gender. I’ve taught all within middle [school]. The main difference that I see is the area of focus that the students have … how much more focused they are in class, how much more they’re willing to volunteer, how much more risk-taking that they will take within that.
Part of that is the environment of what we are setting here, but being that it’s a single-gender environment that helps to support that preparatory environment that we’re building.
Q: Is that a developmental thing or is that a cultural thing, do you think -- that girls are willing to take a backseat in coed classes?
A: I think it’s a combination of both.
What’s going on dynamics-wise with the age of a middle schooler -- their whole brain development. But also – and I don’t mean in any way to stereotype girls – but normally the more outgoing, louder child in the classroom is going to initially get the first attention. And a lot of times that can be boys. [...]
The way that we structure the learning is that everyone is required to take a part of whatever the learning is going on in the classroom. Whether it’s a group activity, whether we’re building in that accountability when that group activity is going on. ... You can’t just take a backseat.
One of the couple of things that we do differently here is ... the girls’ seats are changed continually. You have to know that you never know who you’re going to have to work with. Girls are also very territorial. ... So we constantly put that challenge to them: You don’t know who you’re going to have to work with. You have to get along and work with everyone within that environment.
Q: The ACLU has criticized single-sex education. They’ve launched a nationwide campaign against it because they argue it reinforces gender stereotypes. Is that something you’re concerned about? Do you do anything to try and deal with that?
A: No, I’m not concerned about that.
That’s one of the things we focus on, that we’re not creating stereotypes. You can have all different types of students that come here.
It’s not that we’re offering Barbie playhouse and dolls and every single classroom is pink and we only do culinary arts here. Absolutely not. We offer whatever children would be interested in … we’ve had flag football as an enrichment activity. ... We offer here what any traditional setting would have.
As far as stereotyping, I think we probably stereotype less than what you would see in a traditional setting.
Q: What have you learned in your three years that you would provide as advice to any school district or principal thinking about doing this?
A: The main advice is if you’re building this … is you stay true to the child.
Building a good, effective middle school – whether it’s single-gender or not, is about that relationship you build with the student. ... But you have to build that culture where students are respected, that they’re heard; that parents are respected, that they’re heard; that staff members are respected, that they’re heard.
And if you’re doing that, you’re going to build a successful school environment for either. So that’s the premise of what I base everything on.