Renewing single-gender debate

Jul. 16, 2014 @ 04:22 PM

Last summer, a proposal for a single-gender academy to serve struggling young male students split the Durham Public Schools board right down the middle, and along racial lines.

It was a difficult patch for the board and the system and, in hindsight, was an early signal of the eroding relationship between then-Superintendent Eric Becoats, who pressed for the academy, and the board.

In August, after a summer of heated debate, Becoats was ready to propose and the board was likely to accept a more cautious and methodical approach to the idea than originally suggested.  But one member, Frederick Davis, pushed for an all-or-nothing vote which ended in a tie. Becoats’ compromise proposal never made it to a vote.

Then, as Becoats’ tenure unraveled through the fall, the idea went dormant.

Now, it’s back.

New Superintendent Bert L’Homme told The Herald-Sun’s Greg Childress Monday that he’s prepared to put the idea back on the agenda.

“I’m a big supporter of single-gender schools,” L’Homme said in an interview shortly after he was sworn in. “It gives both girls and boys an opportunity to learn in an environment where they can do their very best.”

Like some board members, we had reservations about the single-gender idea last summer. At the time, the schools seemed to be in a difficult financial position, and making a $12-million or more bet on a major single-gender experiment seemed risky. Education authorities differ on the potential benefits and downsides of gender.

But it seems worthwhile to reopen the discussion.  Two board members whose vote for the full program deflected Becoats’ compromise have left the board, which has three new members this month. With those fresh eyes – and those of L’Homme – looking at the single-gender idea again has merit,

It seems especially important to listen closely to the person the board just unanimously selected to head the system. He comes with widespread enthusiasm within the system and the broader community, and giving him latitude to undertake changes about which he feels passionately would seem prudent.

Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter, who voted against the plan last summer, expressed willingness this week to revisit the idea.  “I was open to the idea then, but had some concerns about opening another choice program,” Carter said.

She noted that L’Homme has mentioned creating single-gender classrooms within traditional schools.  That would be a cautious beginning, and could give the system an opportunity to evaluate the experience.

There may be other approaches, too. And the board may conclude concerns expressed last year are still too great to risk the investment on single-gender experiments when the system has already launched a number of innovations to raise student achievement.

But for many reasons, a new round of debate on the issue will be fruitful and may be persuasive that single-gender classrooms can be, as L’Homme put it, “one of the choices, a  very powerful choice” to keep young male students “on the straight path to graduation.”

We’re willing to listen.