NEW YORK – Ten years ago, when the Young Women's Leadership School was created as a public school for lower-income, mostly minority girls in Harlem, it was a pioneer in the area of same-sex education.
But today, about 200 primary and secondary public schools in the United States offer single-gender classes not only for gym or health, but also for subjects such as math; more than 40 of these schools are completely one-gender.
Although they're championed by many educators as a vital way to boost kids' performance, morale and self-esteem, they're also being challenged by some civil-rights groups.
"These schools have for centuries worked in affluent and parochial communities," said Ann Rubenstein Tisch, president of the Young Women's Leadership Foundation (YWLF), which established the school. "It's just a matter of common sense that they would be effective in inner city communities. Single-sex education is not for everyone. But we really know that it's important to offer choice to girls in the inner city — a choice they've been denied for so many years."
After decades of striving for full equality in education and trying to ensure girls and boys — as well as kids of different skin colors — had access to the same facilities and coeducational classes, it just may be that one way to get kids to excel in school is to go in the opposite direction: literally to separate the boys from the girls. The federal government is expected to release regulations soon on how to make it easier for schools to experiment with these types of classes.
"Many kids will learn better in a single-sex school than a coed class," said Leonard Sax, director of the governing board for the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. "Gender is not learned but is innate to a much greater degree."
But others argue that such classes threaten to reinforce gender stereotypes.
"When you separate boys and girls, they both lose because one group doesn't learn from the other," said David Sadker, president of the Myra Sadker Advocates for Gender Equity, who added that it's important to educate the individual, not the gender.
These opponents of single-gender classrooms say the key to helping kids learn better is to rebuild and strengthen coeducation, get more parents involved and boost resources.
"I'll paraphrase columnist H.L. Mencken, by saying 'for every complicated problem, there is a simple, obvious, and wrong answer.' I think this is what we have here," Sadker said.
But Tisch attributes the Harlem school's success — 100 percent of its students go on to four-year colleges — to being one gender and small. She describes the school as having "high expectations and being very outcome driven."
"Our school's successful because someone from our foundation pays attention every day," she said. "I can't get inside of the minds of some who oppose us. The charges that say we reinforce gender stereotypes are unfounded."
The issue of stereotypes is a sticky one where single-gender schools are concerned.
Sax's group points to a University of Michigan study that found students at single-sex schools had better academic achievement, higher educational aspirations, more confidence and a more positive attitude toward academics. Girls also had fewer stereotyped ideas about what women can and cannot do.
He pointed to a 2003 University of Virginia study that shows that boys in a single-sex setting were more than twice as likely to pursue art, music and drama interests than males in a coed setting who would think these subjects were "for girls."
"A main point is if you don't understand these differences, you end up reinforcing gender stereotypes," Sax said. "Girls get the notion that math and science are boys' subjects … saying that boys are better in math and girls are better at verbal is a result of gender blindness."
But Sadker cited a study from the University of Wisconsin that found almost no difference between how males and females learn. Click here to read the study.
"We create a lot of differences in our culture and expectations," said Sadker, who thinks the brain is shaped through education rather than fixed at birth. The "idea of abandoning public coeducation based on pseudo-studies like brain research and its supposed educational implications really is a major mistake … separate is inherently unequal."
Sax said one reason many low-income schools adopt single-gender classes is because of the Adequate Yearly Progress report, (AYP) part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The NCLB allows for public single-sex classes or schools; in 2001, it appropriated $3 million for grants to local educational agencies for such programs. Under the act, public schools are evaluated by students' progress in reading/language arts, mathematics and either graduation or attendance rates.
"School districts that fail the AYP ask 'How can we improve student's performance without additional money,'" Sax said. "It doesn't cost anything if you have at least 75 kids in each grade. This is a way to achieve the improvement of academic performance without spending the money."
Can't Tie Math a 'Pink Ribbon' Around Math
The Title IX legislation enacted in 1972 was seen by many as the law that opened the doors for girls to educational opportunities they were previously denied. That included desegregated classes, admissions to certain vocational education classes considered "male," more access to advanced mathematics and science courses, and other benefits. Because it took so long to make these strides, some observers worry that the omnipresent threat of stereotyping kids in same-gender settings — even inadvertently — could be a setback.
"As much as I'm an advocate of these schools, they can lend themselves to gender stereotyping … if in fact they're based on the belief there are different learning styles between boys and girls," said St. John's University professor Rosemary Salomone, author of "Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling."
She said there is only anecdotal evidence that kids in the U.S. perform better in a single-gender environment.
"As educators, we understand you have to teach to the individual child. So for me, that would undermine some significant understandings we've gained from children and schooling over the past 40 years," she said.
One egregious example of gender stereotyping, she said, would be "tying math in a pink ribbon" by teaching girls math through cooking. Teachers can't assume all girls learn the same, nor do all boys, she added.
"We can overstate those gender differences to the point, I fear, where we're really boxing students into a sort of stereotypical notion of what a little girl coming to kindergarten is about and what a little boy coming to kindergarten is about," she said. "That would really take us back decades, sociologically, if we did."
At San Francisco's public 49ers Academy, classrooms are single-gender but after-school programs, field trips, recess and dances are not. The same teachers for each subject also teach both male and female students. The demographics are primarily low-income, with 65 percent Latino, 30 percent black and 5 percent Pacific Islander students. Those are common demographics for most of the country's 40 single-gender public schools.
Salomone says these schools work best with poorer, minority, inner-city children because "it really develops this identification that they lack."
"I think you're going to see very different academic profiles and gender differences between the two," she continued. "The gap between disadvantaged boys and girls is much wider at that socioeconomic level, so both groups have more to gain."
Others say there are better ways to boost student performance than separating boys and girls in the classroom.
"Smaller class size, good teacher training, greater parental involvement and mentoring, adequate resources — this will improve academic performance and not trample civil rights law," added Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women.
The group wants single-gender classrooms to be monitored by in-house civil rights overseers and governed by Title IX.
"Classifications based on gender really strikes fear in the hearts of women's advocates," Salomone said, adding the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights should monitor the classes.
"We need to see how it shakes out," she said. "They have to be very vigilant about how these programs are being carried out and not just leave them out there on their own."
But meanwhile, the schools' popularity is increasing.
Michigan House Majority Whip Brian Palmer, chairman of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers in that state are drafting legislation with the American Civil Liberties Union to minimize chances of lawsuits under Title IX as they try to set up single-sex schools in Detroit.
"The important thing to note is that the entire concept is voluntary. Voluntary for the school district to offer it, voluntary for the student to participate in it," Palmer told FOXNews.com.
He stressed that such facilities give lower-income parents an option they otherwise wouldn't have had.
"Different students learn in different ways, and if a district wishes to offer a program, one that will potentially help students to achieve, we should be allowing them to do so," Palmer said. "Education is not a 'one-size-fits-all' endeavor."