CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Board of Education supports single-sex classrooms despite recent criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.
In August, a federal judge halted a Wood County middle school's separation of students by gender after a parent teamed up with the ACLU to sue the school system. The lawsuit claims segregated classrooms violate the U.S. Constitution and federal gender equality laws.
Around the same time, Kanawha County Schools discontinued plans for single-sex classes after receiving letters of concern from the ACLU.
The ACLU believes separated classrooms perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes and discredits research claiming boys and girls learn in drastically different ways. But at this month's state Board of Education meeting, board President Wade Linger said it's important to allow county school boards to choose whether the method would benefit their schools.
"The Board of Education supports school systems' effort to improve student achievement through innovative ways based on research and sound educational practice. To this end, the board supports counties which choose to implement single-sex classrooms if the aforementioned is in alignment with guidance provided by the U.S. Department of Education and embedded in federal regulations," Linger said in a statement prepared along with the board at the Nov. 15 meeting.
There was not much research to discuss, though.
Juan D'Brot, director of assessment and accountability for the Department of Education, said there is no substantial research to support the effectiveness of single-sex classrooms because most of it is based on small sample sizes among private institutions.
"The Department's stance is that the results are inconclusive. We can't really provide you with a pro or con on which side of the fence to sit on," D'Brot told the board. "There are very mixed results and a lot of gray."
Board member Gayle Manchin said Wood County's Van Devender Middle School saw positive results by separating reading, math, social studies and science classes by gender in 2010.
"The research may be inconclusive, but I do know at Van Devender, they found it worked so well. Students and teachers liked it. The ACLU came in and all of the sudden said, 'This isn't good, you can't do it,'" Manchin said. "Boys were doing better and girls were speaking up. There was more participation. I think it's just sad when good, innovative ideas with some research base -- even if it's inconclusive -- is not allowed to continue."
Board member Bill White said he can see the benefits of dividing young students by gender, but worried about the consequences of giving counties the OK -- pointing to similar cases in the past where school systems had fought lawsuits and lost.
"I believe strongly that single-sex classrooms are productive because there are no extra distractions and the girls can be successful in math and excel in things they aren't supposed to traditionally be good at," White said. "But you can't avoid the fact it can be a costly endeavor."
Board member Priscilla Haden said though some improvements were made in the case of Wood County, such as fewer discipline problems, there was no significant impact on academic achievement, and the price the county is paying may not have been worth it.
"I really do believe in my heart that individual schools or counties should have the right to decide what they best need. But, that is costing that county a heck of a lot of money, and until that issue is resolved, I just don't see us getting into that fight," Haden said. "I would not want to bear the legal bills that might occur. The atmosphere at that school improved a lot, and I think that's the reason the Board of Education allows it to continue, but that's continued at what cost?"
When board member Jenny Phillips questioned the risk in voicing support of a topic that has been at the center of a string of lawsuits and reminded the board of potential court costs, Linger asked her, "Would it bother you if this board had to stand up for what we think?"
"There's no real difference in cost to taxpayers. It's money changing hands from one government entity to another -- taxpayers are paying one way or another. I guess at some level you could put a price on doing the right thing, and if we think this is the right thing, we should stand up and say it. I don't think the threat of a lawsuit should be the reason not to," he said. "If local districts want to make their own decisions, we believe in that. And this is an example of that."
The board's student representative, Molly Ballard, a senior at Poca High School, said she does not support the idea of single-sex classrooms, but said if it had to be done, it should be done at the middle-school level.
"If the results aren't that drastic, I don't think it would be worth it. It would just upset students because they're used to being in that setting. It would be really difficult at a high school level to separate boys and girls -- some of my best friends are boys. That environment prepares you for college and the real world. It's just unrealistic to separate us," she said.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.