Single-gender education still lives at Morningside Middle

Students in the ARMS Academy at Morningside Middle School change class Thursday morning. The Arms Academy is the all boys side of the single-gender teaching school.

When Nestor Reyes learned the basic algebraic concept of slope in Cheryl Stowers’ 8th grade boys’ math class, he was up on his feet. Stowers told her students to extend their arms straight out on both sides, tilting one way to show positive slope, the other way for negative slope. It looked like an aerobics class, and the memory stuck.

Nestor is a student in the ARMS (Advancement and Refinement of Men for Society) Academy at Morningside Middle School, a North Charleston campus that has been split into boys’ and girls’ academies since 2009. Single-gender classrooms, a trendy idea in public education during the early 2000s, have waned in popularity and lost some support from the S.C. Department of Education in recent years, but teachers and administrators at Morningside still swear by its merits.

Stowers has taught at Morningside for 17 years, and she said that when the school started its single-gender programs, she realized she was cut out to be a boys’ teacher. Now when her eighth-grade boys take a test, she sees them shooting their arms out to the side, their memories sparked by a physical action.

“I’m able to focus on certain strategies that will work better with the boys,” Stowers said. “They need to be up and moving and more active, so I’m able to plan just for those types of activities in my math classes.”

Morningside serves about 700 students from throughout the Neck Area and Park Circle, with the majority of the student body either African-American or Hispanic. A Title I school, it receives additional federal funds because more than 40 percent of its students come from low-income families.

When Morningside started its two-academy program in 2009, South Carolina was one of the top states in the country promoting single-gender initiatives, with the S.C. Department of Education reporting the previous year that 214 public schools offered single-gender classrooms.

Today, after a change in leadership, the Department of Education doesn’t even have an updated count of single-gender programs. An incomplete listing for the 2014-2015 school year on the state website put the total at just 26 schools with single-gender offerings.

Between classes Thursday morning, Nestor peeled off from a cluster of boys cracking jokes in the hallway and took a seat in Clowers’ classroom. His hair swept skyward and his uniform shirt tucked neatly into his pants, he spoke in a gentle voice when addressed by adults.

Nestor said the ARMS Academy provided a welcome respite from the boy-girl drama that sometimes distracted his classmates in elementary school.

“Some boys get distracted by the girls. They like messing with the girls too much,” Nestor said. But not him. “No, I don’t get distracted,” he added. “I just do my work.”

Morningside students aren’t completely cut off from the opposite sex. The ARMS Academy and the girls’ EXCEL (Excellence in Creativity and Educational Leadership) Academy are housed in the same building with no dividing wall, and classrooms are marked by the blue or purple crest of either academy. Boys and girls cross paths on the bus, in the hallways, in the lunchroom (where they sit on opposite sides) and during Freestyle Fridays, once-a-month events that allow them to mingle outdoors or in a special assembly. The school even has an eighth-grade prom.

Katie Durstock, an eighth-grade English teacher in the EXCEL Academy, said she sees the value in teaching girls separately.

“It’s all about building relationships,” Durstock said. “Girls really need to trust you.”

In her class, Durstock often has her students work in groups, and she said the school also teaches them some important values. “It teaches them independence,” Durstock said. “Not only do we teach them that their opinions matter, but their thoughts matter, too.”

Since the 1990s, proponents of single-gender education in U.S. public schools have been pointing to studies that suggest differences between boys and girls affect how they learn. For example, one 1993 observational study by American University professors Myra and David Sadker found that girls were less likely to speak out than boys in co-ed classrooms, and a series of studies from the 1950s and ’60s suggested that boys’ ears were less sensitive to quiet voices.

Single-gender classrooms only became legal in public schools in 2001 after President George W. Bush signed an amendment to the gender-equality law known as Title IX. Critics painted it as a conservative ploy, but the bill had support from Democrats including then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

When Democratic S.C. Superintendent of Education Jim Rex took office in 2007, he hired David Chadwell, a former lead teacher in a public school boys’ academy in Columbia, to the newly created position of coordinator for single-gender initiatives. Chadwell rode the circuit sharing the good news of single-gender education, providing free training and the latest research to teachers and administrators.

“I talked with everybody under the sun about what single-gender was, trying to dispel preconceived myths that it’s some sort of military academy for boys or finishing school for girls,” Chadwell said. “You spend a lot of time in public relations.”

Chadwell helped establish and maintain single-gender programs until 2011, the year Republican State Superintendent Mick Zais took office. Chadwell’s position disappeared that year, and his and other state employees’ responsibilities were lumped into the job of a single employee who also promotes Montessori and charter programs throughout the state.

Single-gender advocates have also seen the tides of popular opinion turn against them in some cases. A 2011 paper in Science magazine denounced many of the studies supporting single-gender education as “pseudoscience,” and in 2014 the American Psychological Association published a paper based on an analysis of 184 studies that found the advantages of single-gender education are “trivial and, in many cases, nonexistent.”

But Chadwell said the data simply hasn’t been collected yet that would prove the benefits of single-gender education. “Single-gender, in my mind, doesn’t have to be better than co-ed,” Chadwell said. “It is a choice. It is another opportunity.”

The decline in single-gender programs in South Carolina might have little to do with academic trends. S.C. Education Department spokesman Dino Teppara said that when his department asked principals and lead teachers why they discontinued single-gender programs, “the most common response was due to a lack of parent interest.”

“Additionally,” Teppara said, “some principals shared that they were not necessarily seeing improvements in test scores and were looking for ways to close gaps and increase student achievement.”

Morningside Principal Joseph Williams was fighting off sickness Thursday morning, and behind closed doors in his office, he sounded weary and hoarse. But as soon as his voice crackled over the intercom for morning announcements, he was a man transformed. After playing a snippet of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” he launched into a near-shout that was worthy of a pep rally.

Throughout his school, Williams drives home the message that college is an option, encouraging homeroom teachers to decorate their rooms with flags from their alma maters and taking eighth graders on a tour of colleges every year. “No one ever did that with me growing up in these neighborhoods,” he said.

It is impossible to isolate a single factor in any school’s success, but in its seventh year as a dual-academy campus, Morningside has shown some progress. The school’s state report card grade bumped up from At Risk to Below Average in 2012, and the state recently recognized Morningside with a Palmetto Gold award for academic growth. Still, the most recent report card for 2014 showed that 56 percent of Morningside students failed the English/language arts portion of the SC PASS — the same percentage who failed it in 2009.

Morningside is not a magnet school, but attendance is a choice. Parents can send their children elsewhere in the district if they do not want their children to attend a single-gender academy, and in the 2014-2015 school year, about one-third of parents with middle schoolers in the Morningside attendance zone did so. The largest share of those students, 122, transferred to Military Magnet Academy.

Enrollment numbers aren’t as high as Williams would like them to be, but, he said, “I don’t focus on who is not in my building.” Nor does he spend time worrying about a lack of support from the state level. The S.C. Department of Education used to send Chadwell down to check on Morningside regularly in the academies’ early years, but contact from the state office has been sparse since 2011.

The important changes at Morningside don’t always show up on paper. James Perry, chairman of Charleston County’s District 4 Constituent Board, said parents in the neighborhood tell him that their children concentrate better on their lessons in single-gender classrooms.

As for Williams, who insists on calling the children scholars instead of students, he said, “The biggest thing was wanting the young ladies to be more expressive and the young men to be more competitive.” He said he sees it happen every day.

Patrolling the halls, Williams stopped in a classroom of seventh-grade girls and quizzed them on the Optimists Creed, one of the lengthy pledges that each grade of each academy must memorize.

In unison, and smiling, the girls rose from their desks and recited the creed. They’d only had a few weeks to learn it.

“To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind,” the creed goes in part. “To think of only the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.”

“I’ve seen a big change in the culture,” Williams said. “Like any middle schoolers, they might greet me in the hallway one day and be sullen the next ... But the young ladies are more vocal in classes now. There’s a feeling of comfort.”