GREENSBORO, Ga. – Nearly four decades after this rural Georgia county stopped segregating its schools by race, it wants to divide students again — this time by sex.
Greene County is set to become the first school district in the nation to go entirely single-sex, with boys and girls in separate classrooms — a move born of desperation over years of poor test scores, soaring dropout rates and high numbers of teenage pregnancies.
"At the rate we're moving, we're never going to catch up," Superintendent Shawn McCollough told parents in an impassioned speech last week. "If we're going to take some steps, let's take some big steps."
This pine-shrouded county of about 14,400 people between Atlanta and Augusta has in recent years become a magnet for retirees moving into luxury developments along the shore of Lake Oconee. But the vast majority of longtime residents — and most of the 2,000 students in the county's schools — are black and working class.
McCollough pointed to research showing that boys and girls learn differently, and said separating them will allow teachers to tailor their lessons. Also, boys won't misbehave as much because they will no longer be trying to impress the girls, and the girls will be more likely to speak up in class because they won't be afraid to look smart in front of the boys, he said.
The school board's move to radically overhaul the system next fall has angered parents, students and teachers, who say they weren't consulted. And one of the nation's foremost proponents of single-sex education warned that the board has gone too far.
The measure, approved two weeks ago, applies to the high school, the middle school and both elementary schools. It exempts only the preschool and a charter school, which is public but operates independently.
"I am outraged," said Tammi Freeman, who has two children at the high school. "I am disgusted. It's making our county look like our kids are trouble when they're not."
Leonard Sax, head of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, said that while single-sex schools and classrooms are on the increase, he knows of no other community that has converted its entire school system. He called the move illegal.
Federal law allows single-sex classrooms or schools, but parents must also have the option of publicly funded coeducation for their children, Sax said.
"This is the worst kind of publicity for our movement," he said. "It misses the whole point. Our movement is about choice. One size does not fit all. Even a small school district needs to provide choice."
U.S. Education Department spokeswoman Samara Yudof said officials "do not have sufficient facts to determine if the district would be in compliance" with federal law.
Districts across the U.S. have been switching to single-sex education since federal officials issued rules to ease the process in 2006. Nationally, at least 366 public schools are either entirely single-sex or have single-sex classrooms, Sax said.
In Greene County, boys and girls will be in separate classrooms in the elementary schools. Boys and girls in grades seven through 12 will attend separate schools. Some electives and extracurricular activities such as ROTC and band will probably be coed.
The charter school, Lake Oconee Academy, will remain coed; it is governed by a committee of parents and community leaders. It opened last fall amid protests from black citizens who said it brings back segregation, since the school has a fixed enrollment area centered on the mostly white, well-to-do lakefront.
Greene County is about 70 percent black. Many people in the county made their living at hosiery, clothing and fabric mills until the industry disappeared at the end of the 20th century and gave way to a service economy in which the big employers are the Reynolds Plantation luxury golf resort community and the Ritz-Carlton lodge.
McCollough said he hopes single-sex classrooms raise test scores and graduation rates in a district where more than three-quarters of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Sixty-seven percent of Greene County ninth-graders go on to receive a diploma, compared with 72 percent statewide. Last year, the students scored an average of 1,168 on the SAT, far below the state average of 1,458 and the national average of 1,495. The high school has been ranked 332nd out of 369 in Georgia.
Teachers and parents are split over the move.
"Sometimes big changes are needed for big results. The teaching staff I talked to are willing to work hard and make it work," said Sherry Shutze, who has taught at Union Point Elementary for nine years.
But another teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said dozens of teachers are considering leaving because they feel the idea is being "crammed down our throats."
Dwain Evans said he is thrilled his three children will have a chance to attend single-sex schools: "If we continue to do status quo, we can't expect any better outcome."
Research shows that when boys and girls are separated, each group performs better in school and is more likely to go to college, said Julie Ancis, a professor in the school of education at Georgia State University.
But she said single-sex schools tend to be private institutions with updated technology and ample resources, not poor school systems like Greene County's.