Single-sex schools proposal stirs community discussion

Community members voiced concerns about gender inequality and the role of race in schools during an Austin ISD town hall meeting about establishing single-sex schools in east Austin.

AISD is considering combining attendance areas at the James E. Pearce College Preparatory Academy and Gus Garcia Middle School to create two single-sex middle schools.

On July 28, a panel of AISD principals, educators and community leaders answered questions about single-sex education at Lyndon B. Johnson Early College High School.

The panelists included:

  • Wilton Harris, Reagan High School XY Zone coordinator;
  • Webb Middle School principal Rey Garcia;
  • Edmund T. Gordon, chair and associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas;
  • and Victor B. Saenz, assistant professor in the department of educational administration at UT.

Attendees asked whether single-sex academic institutions offer better instruction than coed schools, and why single-sex schools are the district's focus while large class sizes, high-stakes testing, race issues and other factors also challenge local education.

Many attendees said it seemed as if the matter had already been decided. It is included as a possibility in the district's Annual Academic and Facility Recommendations for 2013-14.

In response, District 1 Trustee Cheryl Bradley said the design has not yet been finalized.

"I see this as a valuable form of delivering education, so we can dispel some of the things I'm hearing panelists talk about," she said. "When have I ever shoved anything down your throat, and tried not to work in your best interest? I am listening to you at all times."

Considering the proposed format

Bradley said some research has shown the number of disciplinary referrals rises substantially in middle school. Single-sex schools could eliminate some distractions for students and ultimately reduce the dropout rate, she said.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said that unlike the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, the proposed design for District 1 would be attendance area-driven, and students would be able to opt out and attend school elsewhere.

Students from Ann Richards and Webb spoke about their experiences. Webb tested the single-sex style in eighth grade science and social studies classes, according to Garcia.

Because of the positive results, Webb plans to implement single-sex classes throughout its campus in all subjects, he said.

Panelist Gordon said research illustrates differences between the way men and women learn.

"Same-sex schools benefit girls precisely because of gender inequality; girls are in a situation where they can more freely engage," he said.

While he said he did not support single-sex schools in general, he said the AISD should do something to ensure students, particularly African-American and Latino children, can receive better education.

"Whatever we do, the historic inequity between west and east in Austin has to be addressed," he added.

In national evaluations, 81 percent of young men participating in XY Zone's mentoring and community programs go on to finish high school, illustrating single-sex settings can be productive, Harris said.

"I am confronted each day with men who are not achieving, who are dropping out, who have lost dreams and are dealing with social and economic issues such as poverty, divorce, substance abuse, the whole nine yards. We as a community owe these people the opportunity to reach their potential. We're spending more to incarcerate than educate, and we have to do something."

Urging local involvement

AISD used counters to survey the crowd and learned that, without getting more information, most attendees were uncomfortable with the district's board of trustees moving forward with the recommendation during the board's Aug. 28 meeting.

Saenz said that because of the feedback, the community should not be a laboratory for some of the initiatives.

"My professional opinion is the research is inconclusive. That is frustrating. These are issues we have to continue to push forth on," he said, encouraging local citizens to do their own research.

AISD will hold a public hearing on single-sex schools on Tuesday, July 31 at 7:30 p.m. at 1111 W. Sixth St. For more information, visit www.austinisd.org/fmp.



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