Current: Controversial teaching approach in Central Illinois

Current: Controversial teaching approach in Central Illinois

DECATUR -- A Central Illinois high school uses a controversial teaching approach in hopes of raising grades and confidence.
DECATUR -- A Central Illinois high school uses a controversial teaching approach in hopes of raising grades and confidence. On last year's ACT's, boys in Illinois outscored girls in science and math. Girls were better in reading and English. That got the principal of Decatur's McArthur High School thinking, maybe the best way to close the gender-grade gap, was to blow it wide open.

"Nature takes it course. You start noticing the opposite sex and you start playing into those roles, society's roles. Whether it's right or wrong, I'm not saying that. We start playing into those roles," says Dr. Rhonda Key, principal of McArthur High School.

Dr. Key is in her second year on the job. When she started, she noticed boys were struggling in English, and girls were falling behind in math. She decided to divide the non-honors freshman students for those classes in hopes of multiplying success.

"It's a very critical year so we got to get a hold of them and put that confidence in them so they can move to the 10th, 11th, 12th. Once those girls and males develop that foundation, then you move them out into the real world," she says.

Teachers say when the genders split, the grades go up. Students we talked to reported their grades going from C's to A's. They say it's because being in a single sex classroom keeps their focus up and flirting down.

"Well, when I was in the boys and girls class, I never asked my questions. I just sat there and tried to be cute. In an all-girls class, I ask my questions. I get more involved," says freshman Makeyla Reed.

"I'm not afraid about what I say and if I mess up ain't nobody gonna laugh, and I'm not going to feel embarrassed like when there's girls around," admits Jalen Gaskie.

Some of the results they're seeing from the split classrooms can't be measured by grades or scores.

"I wanted to be a doctor, and math is a big part of that and I thought, 'I'm not that good,' then I went to a gender-based class and I'm pretty good at it, so..." says Joshalyn Taliaferro.

"I know I can actually apply myself instead of just saying I'm going to pick this because I'm good at it. I can pick something that I can put hard work into instead of just doing something because it's easy," says her classmate Kaitlin Karnes.

Dr. Key says it's proof that a high school education goes beyond the books.

"If you make a difference with one...wow. It makes it all worthwhile. It makes it all worthwhile," she says.

Dr. Key hopes gender-specific classrooms will help change the workforce, especially for women. It's a hope the White House has too. It wants more women in S.T.E.M careers. It stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

The latest numbers from the census show that while women make up nearly half of the workforce, they only account for 26% of the S.T.E.M workforce in 2011. There's new evidence that all students are losing interest in S.T.E.M careers.

A report out last week by U.S. News and World Report shows high school students' interest in S.T.E.M disciplines dropped between 2009 and 2013. Experts say it's because schools aren't getting girls interested in those careers early enough.

To see more about the government's effort to encourage women to join the S.T.E.M workforce, and learn more about how girls and boys stack up against each other in the classroom, visit its Women in S.T.E.M website

Of course, even though McArthur High School is noticing a positive impact from its split-gender classrooms, some research suggests they don't work and that the practice reinforces harmful stereotypes. Critics of split-gender classrooms are successfully getting some schools to stop the practice.

Last year, a school in Wood County, West Virginia, agreed to stop splitting males and females for two years. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the district on behalf of a mother and her female daughter saying it was sex discrimination.
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