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Trend puts more students into same-sex classes | (KRT) The eighth-grade math class seems like any other - the students fidget and listen as the teacher explains the lesson.

It's what's missing that makes all the difference. No love note passing. No girls giggling. And the boys aren't acting silly to catch the opposite sex's attention.

In fact, there are no girls in this class at Chain of Lakes Middle School in Orlando. All the students are boys.

"You can actually pay attention in class," said Michel Souza, 15. "There's no flirting."

It's a trend that's being repeated in more than two-dozen states. At least 97 public schools have begun separating boys and girls in hopes the controversial teaching method, used in top-notch private schools for generations, will help develop better-focused, higher-performing students.

In Florida, two middle schools are experimenting with separating boys and girls in at least some classes.

And on Tuesday, the Volusia County School Board approved an elementary school's plan to offer same-sex classes in kindergarten, second and fourth grades in August.

Until now, public schools have been allowed to hold single-sex classes only in limited situations, such as for physical education. But proposed changes to federal education rules have opened the door wider.

"For years, those who had a tremendous amount of money could pay for their children to go to an all-boys school or an all-girls school, and if it's been a viable option for the wealthy, why shouldn't it be a viable option for all students?" said Chain of Lakes Principal Carol Kindt.

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Proponents say same-gender classes work because boys and girls learn differently, and they can better focus on their studies when they aren't distracted by the opposite sex.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and National Organization for Women are among groups who disagree with separating boys and girls, saying it's discriminatory and promotes stereotypes.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said that although local school districts may be investigating the issue, he doesn't think many more schools will make the leap.

"I think there are groups in this country that have worked hard to have equity and quality in everything that's done in society," Blanton said. "After some time, they would be reluctant to give up those gains."

Girls have made great gains in terms of gender equity over the decades, but there remains a gap in academic achievement between the sexes. Last year, fourth-grade girls scored higher than boys on a national reading test by an average of 7 points. That gap grew to 11 points in grade 8, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But boys outperformed girls in math.

Studies also show more women than men are going to college and earning degrees.

Administrators at Odyssey Middle School in Palm Beach County, Fla., say kids have improved so much in their program's first year this school year they plan to expand it.

At Chain of Lakes, Summer Jenkins, 13, said she feels more comfortable asking questions and solving math problems in front of her all-girl math class.

"You don't have to worry about anybody saying anything about you or how you look," she said. "You just go up there."

U.S. Education Department officials announced in 2002 that they intended to change regulations on single-sex classes to make it easier for educators to offer single-gender classes and schools. Two months ago, they unveiled the proposed rules.

There doesn't appear to be a consensus yet on which grade levels are affected most by same-sex education programs.

There's actually little research on the subject. What does exist focuses mostly on private schools, including Catholic high schools, said Cornelius Riordan, a professor at Providence College in Rhode Island who has studied the issue. Some research shows single-sex education is more effective, especially with at-risk students.

Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, said most of the public schools trying separate classes for boys and girls have seen improved test scores, grades and discipline. Some schools, though, have quit the program because teachers had trouble controlling all-boy classes.

Sax said teachers should be well trained on boys' and girls' learning styles. For example, boys generally don't hear as well, he said. He also said that boys typically learn better in confrontational settings with high-stakes competitions while girls prefer nonthreatening environments where teachers act more like friends than coaches.

"You can't put girls in one room and boys in another and expect everything to work out wonderfully," Sax said. "Teaching an all-boys class is very different than teaching a co-ed classroom."

At Chain of Lakes, Kindt plans to open single-sex language arts, math, science and social studies classes for sixth-graders next school year.

Kindt said she'll know better next year whether children in same-sex classes are learning more when she compares test scores.

"If they have that distraction taken away, of course they are going to perform better," Kindt said.

Christine Lopez said she wouldn't want same-sex classes for her kids, Brianna, a kindergartner, and Austin, a first-grader. She thinks boys and girls should be together. "I think they need to learn to interact with each other," Lopez said.

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© 2004, The Orlando Sentinel Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services