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AISD: We Know What Boys Are Like

Proposal would turn Pearce and Garcia middle schools into single-sex academies

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 10, 2012

AISD: We Know What Boys Are Like
Illustration by Jason Stout

Do East Austin's middle school boys need to be taught separately from girls? Trustee Cheryl Bradley thinks so. She proposes turning two of the four middle schools in her district into "single-sex" schools.

Starting in 2013, the beleaguered James E. Pearce College Preparatory Academy (aka Pearce Middle School) would undergo yet another repurposing, this time into a boys' school, while Gus Garcia Middle School would become a new girls' school. Each would be open enrollment, covering kids in grades 6-8. Parents who do not want their kids to be segregated by gender would have to opt out. After their three years in single-sex schools, kids would return to regular co-ed high schools.

It's a radical plan, one that would leave a large section of East Austin without ready access to a co-ed middle school. For Bradley, who represents both the Pearce and Garcia communities, that's the point. She portrays single-sex middle schools as a sort of fire break, giving young teens a chance to get ready for high school without the distraction of puberty. She said, "With most girls, especially in middle school, if they're fighting, if you get those two together and you find out what caused it, after you get through all the rest of the nonsense, there's a boy somewhere in the middle of it." Brad­ley has been constantly frustrated by what she sees as the lack of investment in her district, and argues that a complete reboot of the campuses would bring more resources and an added emphasis on college readiness. Moreover, she wants the district to act now to end those inequities and asks the board to vote on the measure before the end of September.

Usually, advocates for single-sex education in Austin point to the district's only single-sex school, the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. The plans for an equivalent all-male school go back to former Superintendent Pat Forgione (see "Forgione's BEST-Laid Plan for Closing Webb," Feb. 16, 2007), and the district has already secured a $4.6 million grant from the Moody Foundation to build a similarly high-flying boys' academy. But Brad­ley sees that as the antithesis of what she wants for East Austin. Ann Richards, she argues, is basically a magnet school that gets to choose which students it takes. "We have magnets in East Austin that do not even benefit all the kids in that facility," she said. If single-sex schools are going to work, Brad­ley believes, they have to be open to everyone.

UT psychology professor Rebecca Big­ler has been a strong critic of Ann Richards, arguing that it is a magnet masquerading as a regular girls' school (see "Uncontrolled Experiments," Dec. 9, 2011), and she is no more supportive of Bradley's plans for open enrollment versions. For her, the idea that minority children suddenly become incapable of controlling their emotions when they hit puberty "fits 200 years of stereotypes of black men." She found the push from the African-American community "particularly perplexing, considering how racist some of the overtones are, that white kids don't need single-sex schooling."

The larger problem, says Bigler, is that there is no evidence that single-sex schooling works. In 2011, she co-authored a study titled "The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling." She had found no research supporting the idea that girls and boys learn differently. But there are major drawbacks to splitting kids up: Her review of the available data showed there is a risk that boys became more aggressive, while some research shows girls can be more prone to poor body image. She says, "I totally understand being fed up with inequality in education, but to think that single-sex schooling is going to be the magic bullet?"

AISD has gone on a charm offensive to sell the idea through community meetings, but is receiving pushback on multiple fronts. During a July 31 meeting in the board room, speakers voiced concerns that the district is yet again using East Austin as an educational laboratory – something they would never do in West Austin. Some feared that the plan separates children by gender at just the age when they should learn how to interact – as Bigler noted, the world isn't single-sex. The administrators and the trustees present also heard concerns that, by reinforcing gender stereotypes, single-sex schools create additional pressures for gay and lesbian kids. Those concerns are even deeper for transgender kids. Lisa Scheps, founder of the Transgender Educa­tion Network of Texas, warned that the district is entering "an extremely complicated area." She opposes single-sex education anyway, but argued that the district would need to seriously consider how it handles applications from students who self-identify as something other than what it says on their birth certificate. She said, "We would want that district to respect that child's gender identity."

However, some community leaders, like Paul Saldaña, fear the district will bulldoze the plan through, regardless of research or community opposition. He sat on Forgione's commission considering a boys' academy, and had been told this year by AISD that the group would reconvene. That has yet to happen, and instead the district has gone straight to the community. The plan may be further along than many realize: In response to an open records request, AISD told the Chronicle that there were more than 1,500 pages of internal and external communication about single-sex schools in the first five months of 2012 alone. Saldaña said, "AISD already has a predetermination of what they want to do."

Yet the board of trustees is still smarting over accusations that it shoved through the IDEA Public Schools charter deal too fast and with too little real discussion. An August vote would mean pulling the single-sex measure out of the annual facility recommendations, due before the board in December. And, with a board election in November, lame duck trustees up for re-election may get nervous about voting on such a controversial measure. Board Vice President Vince Tor­res points to an even simpler conundrum: The trustees may simply not have enough information to move ahead with an August vote. While he believes single-sex education can work in some communities, he's unsure it would work in East Austin, or if the community even wants it. He said, "That's what I'm struggling with."

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