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Austin School Board to Debate Single-Sex Schools Tonight

Nathan Bernier, KUT News

An Austin ISD proposal to convert two northeast campuses into a pair of single-sex middle schools will go before the school board tonight.

They won’t take action on the plan for Pearce and Garcia Middle Schools, but board members will have a chance to discuss what has become a controversial recommendation.

Members of the public had a lot of questions for the district during a series of open forums on the proposal. This particular meeting at LBJ High School got heated and some parents said they left feeling that their questions about the benefits of single-sex education weren’t answered. Even Cheryl Bradley – the school board member who represents the district and has been a strong proponent of single-sex schools – told KXAN afterwards that it was time to “stop and rethink” the idea.

The school district’s $11 million plan for the 2013-14 school year is to combine the attendance zones of Pearce and Garcia Middle schools, campuses that have suffered the state's dreaded “academically unacceptable” rating for multiple years. One school would be just for girls, and one would be just for boys. Parents could opt out and send their kids to another school, but that would likely mean a longer commute. 

At GirlStart – a summer day camp where girls can learn about science, technology, engineering and math – students appear to have fun solving fictitious murder mysterious by using tools like cryptography to decode hidden messages, or learning how to create a own homemade version of the board game Operation using cardboard, tinfoil, wires and 9 volt batteries.

“We see it all the time. Boys are driving and girls are sitting back,” says GirlStart’s executive director Tamara Hudgins. “I saw an engineering camp recently. Boys were working on the robotics and girls were designing the marketing poster.”

“We do believe that single-gender education is important. It may not be the choice for everybody or every kid, but we absolutely support Austin ISD’s interest in doing it,” says Hudgins.

But researchers are divided on whether single-sex education works. Many of the examples provided by the districtare charter schools that require parents be active enough in their child’s education to participate in the sometimes challenging enrollment requirements.

University of Texas researcher Rebecca Bigler has been examining children’s attitudes surrounding gender and school for more than two decades. She recently published a study called The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling.  Bigler believes schools should focus on teaching boys and girls how to interact instead of separating them.

“The argument [in favor of single-sex schools] is really instead of removing the sexism, the gender harassment, you just remove the sex or the gender and not the '–ism' from the classroom,” says Bigler. “That isn’t an effective strategy.”

“A big part of learning across puberty is learning how to engage in appropriate cross-sex relations,” says Bigler. “Life is co-ed. Colleges for the most part are co-ed. Really, it’s an important skill to learn to respect and interact with people appropriately when they don’t come from the same background, gender, race religion as you do.”

The Austin school board’s work session starts at 6:30 and the discussion on single-sex schools is scheduled to start at 8:15. The meeting is streamed online and broadcast by most cable providers. 

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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