By Ciara O'Rourke | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011
Parents weighed in Saturday morning on an Austin school district proposal to open two single-gender schools in their attendance zones, a move administrators believe could help improve some students' academic performance.
The district's $11.1 million proposal calls for putting the children at Pearce and Garcia middle schools in East Austin.
Boys would attend one school, and girls would attend the other, though the preliminary plans have not specified which campus would hold which school. The schools would serve 650 boys and 650 girls in grades six through eight. The proposal is part of a larger effort to improve the district's facilities.
Debra Clarke, an art teacher at Sims Elementary School who attended Saturday's community forum, said she supports the proposal in part because it helps girls become stronger and more independent without boys to distract them.
"It gives you that confidence," said Clarke, who attended Texas Woman's University.
Paula Rogers, who has two students at Sims Elementary School, urged administrators to ensure that children would not just have teachers of the same gender, but who also shared the same racial background. Rogers said she isn't necessarily in favor of single-gender schools, but she said she's willing to try it because she thinks the district has failed in teaching black children.
Trustees plan to vote on the proposals in December, though Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said it could be as late as 2013-14 before the single-gender schools open if they approve the plan.
"It depends on how ready we feel," she said.
Trustee Cheryl Bradley, who represents the area that includes the schools, said, "We're more concerned with doing it right than how fast we do it."
Other details, such as whether and when students from other attendance zones would be able to attend the schools, are also unknown.
Carstarphen said the district would start with students in the attendance area and then could expand to other zones, potentially using a lottery system to admit students.
The district's current single-gender school — the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders — opened in 2007 and takes applications from students from across the district.
In June, the Galveston-based Moody Foundation announced that it is giving the Austin district $4.6 million for the creation of a boys school that could open in 2013-14.
The Ann Richards school has earned the state's highest academic rating, but a University of Texas researcher challenged the school's success in a paper published in the journal Science in September.
In "The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling," co-author Rebecca Bigler, a University of Texas psychology and women's and gender studies professor, argued that single-sex schools don't improve student performance any more than coeducational schools. Bigler said that high test scores were the result of the selective admissions policy and that single-sex education was not a wise investment of taxes.
District officials have countered that there also is a significant body of research that supports single-sex education. Carstarphen said that not all single-gender designs work. The district has pulled together best practices from a number of schools, she said, including Ann Richards.
Bradley, who initially presented the idea of introducing single-gender schools in the area to Carstarphen, called the proposal an "opportunity to help with the distractions that can plague some schools."
Visiting a South Austin middle school last summer where some summer school classes were divided by gender, Bradley said she saw a calmer, more attentive classroom than the classes that were coed.
Some parents at the forum asked why teachers don't already have the higher expectations that Carstarphen said she'd like to create at the proposed single-gender schools. Keisha Jones, who has two students in the district, said that if students had the right support from teachers and administrators, they could be successful regardless of the gender of the student body.
"Fixing the system takes a lot longer than helping this vertical team," Carstarphen said, referring to the elementary, middle and high schools in the LBJ and Reagan high school zones. "In the meantime, we can do a much better job at Garcia and Pearce."