Separate classes for girls and boys at Van Devender Middle School in Parkersburg, W. Va., have to be reorganized into coed classes by Monday, a federal judge ruled this week.
The injunction comes after a mother and her daughters, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleged that the school was using pseudoscience and gender stereotypes to teach boys and girls, and that the different methods harmed them academically and violated their civil rights.
One of the girls, diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, alleges she was frequently reprimanded for not sitting still, while boys were encouraged to move about their classroom. Another, legally blind, alleges the lights were not bright enough in her classroom because the teachers have been told that girls respond better to a different kind of light.
Wood County district officials deny the allegations, and one single-sex education expert who testified on behalf of the school agrees, saying she thought the approaches in the classroom were thoughtful, rather than based on stereotypes.
But as a tiny but growing number of public schools – about 1,000 by one estimate – offer full programs or individual classes for boys and girls in separate settings, the Van Devender case highlights the debate about whether such programs are important experiments in closing achievement gaps or a reinforcement of troubling gender stereotypes.
Under Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, public schools can offer single-sex classes if they meet criteria outlined in 2006 regulations from the US Department of Education. The classes have to be "substantially related" to achieving specific educational objectives. They also have to be voluntary, and students must be offered an equivalent coed alternative.
In Wednesday's opinion, Chief Judge Joseph Goodwin of the US District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia agreed with the plaintiffs that the program was not sufficiently voluntary.
Parents had been given notice that students could opt out, but too close to the start of the school year. Judge Goodwin ruled that in order for the classes to comply with Title IX, parents would have to give their "affirmative assent," preferably in a written document opting into the program.
Although the ruling is not binding in other parts of the country, it could prompt many school districts nationwide to adopt an opt-in policy for single-sex classes.
Both opponents and proponents of single-sex classes in public schools, however, found something to cheer in the opinion, which did not rule out the possibility of single-sex classes at the school in the future.
"The most important thing is our clients are going to coed classes next week," says Amy Katz, cooperating attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project in New York. If there is a future program in the district, she says, "it can't be mandatory, and we don't think most people would even elect to put their kids into single-sex classes."
But Goodwin put a damper on some of the broader arguments the ACLU has offered in opposing single-sex classes in public schools: "The plaintiffs, in essence, take the position that no single-sex classes would ever withstand scrutiny under the Constitution or Title IX. The court finds this argument unpersuasive."