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Middleton students thrive in same-gender classes

Principal Robin Gilbert
demonstrates a standup desk in a boys-only class.

Girls to the left. Boys to the right.

Teachers start their day by giving that kind of direction to students at Middleton’s Heights Elementary where children spend the day in same-gender classes. Principal Robin Gilbert said that boys and girls have different learning patterns, which are easier to capitalize on in single-sex classes.

“The data tells us it’s working,’’ Gilbert said. “We’re seeing academic achievement increase.”

Each grade (first through fifth) has a boys-only class, a girls-only class and a mixed class, so parents have a choice. Heights will adopt the routine in kindergarten this fall.

“I’m excited to start offering it in kindergarten because the younger they are, the more closely they follow gender habits,” Gilbert said.

The classrooms have obvious differences. In boys’ classrooms, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the temperature is set at 68 degrees. In the girls’ rooms, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature rests at 72 degrees. The decorations are noticeably different, too. In one boys’ room, the theme is “camping” so there are pictures of moose and fishing poles and the walls are painted green and brown.

“We don’t want to pink-ify or blue-ify a room, but we do want to display things they are interested in,’’ Gilbert said.

The students are all given the same curriculum, required by law, but the teaching delivery can be different. Boys respond better to a more competitive or action-oriented presentation while girls thrive with a more verbal instruction, Gilbert said. She can share anecdotes of a teacher giving a presentation to boys that is well received, but the exact same delivery can bring girls to tears. Boys work better side-by-side, and teachers reserve direct eye contact for discipline. Girls prefer teachers face them all the time.

“Teachers have to rethink how they introduce topics,’’ Gilbert said. “Boys require a teacher to be well-planned. Girls will give you a lot more leeway.”

Another difference, Gilbert said, is in the way they handle stress. Boys reduce stress levels with physical activity while girls tend to take stress to the core, so teaching them yoga techniques has worked. Another trait Gilbert has witnessed is that boys will behave differently if girls are not present. Third-graders were asked to participate in ballet. In the boys’ class, everyone got involved. The girls did the same thing. But in the mixed class, the boys would not participate.
“It was amazing,’’ Gilbert said. “I’ve also noticed that leadership skills develop more for the girls in the girls-only PE class.”

Discipline has become easier, too, Gilbert said. Boys tend to bully boys they don’t know, so supporting teamwork in boys-only classrooms has been effective. Girls tend to bully girls they do know so teachers present activities where girls learn commonalties and build friendships and relationships to avert bullying.

“Kids will perform better if we can keep the drama out of the classroom,” she said.

The bottom-line goal for same-gender classrooms is to increase academic achievement. Gilbert wanted to close the gap in reading, where girls tend to score better than boys, and in math, where boys traditionally score better than girls.

“We’ve closed the gap, which was our original goal,” Gilbert said. “We’ve also found that gender-separate classes always out-perform the mixed classes.”

Middleton Heights started separating the sexes about seven years ago. It was a shocking change for patrons in the beginning, but now Gilbert said she doesn’t have to sell the idea to parents like she used to.

“Staff-wide, we are a more gender-friendly school now,” Gilbert said. “But good teaching is good teaching, no matter what we try.”

Read more about Middleton’s success in a front-page article with The Idaho Statesman.

Decorations in a boys-only classroom at Heights Elementary in Middleton.
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