SANFORD – Inside Barbara Noone’s sixth-grade classroom at Willard School, educational posters hang on the walls and books are stacked on shelves. But the seats are filled only with girls.

The class is part of a single-gender classroom program the school launched three years ago with two single-gender sixth-grade classes, one for boys and one for girls. This year, the program expanded to the fifth grade, with one all-boys and one all-girls classroom.

The students say it works for them.

On a recent afternoon, sixth-grader Stephanie Lane leaned across the table to help classmate Sierra Hussey figure out a math problem in the unit on drawing and reading graphs. They agreed they’re less distracted now.

“There’s no boys bothering me,” Lane said.

Added Hussey: “We’re learning to step up in class and have a big voice.”

That’s just what Principal Chuck Potter hoped for when he launched the program.

About six years ago, Potter started researching the concept that single-gender classrooms could improve learning conditions. He said a lot of what he read indicated boys are quicker to respond to math or science questions and girls feel embarrassed answering those questions. When teachers joined him in launching the program, he hoped it would provide a better learning opportunity for some students.

“The majority of students do well in mixed-gender classrooms, but this creates a setting that’s more comfortable to take risks,” Potter said. “We want to have a learning environment for kids to feel safe in their education.”

It’s a relatively rare program for Maine. Richard Durost, the executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said the only other single-gender program he knows of is an all-girls math class offered at Presque Isle High School. That class began when Durost was principal there in the early 1990s. He said the school chose to offer the class to fulfill a need for freshman girl math students who seemed to lack confidence in a coed classroom.

“Based on my experience, it certainly is very successful for some students,” he said.

Breaking up boys and girls into different classrooms is a growing trend nationally, according to the Pennsylvania-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

When Leonard Sax, a retired family physician, founded the nonprofit organization in 2002, he said about a dozen schools had single-gender offerings nationwide. Today, there are about 120 single-gender public schools and more than 380 schools that offer single-gender classrooms.

Sax said that before he started researching single-gender education, he thought it promoted gender stereotypes and inadequately prepared students for a “coed world.” But after visiting hundreds of schools and dedicating recent years to studying the benefits of single-gender classrooms, he is now an ardent proponent.

“The single-sex format is a tool, one of many available to break down gender stereotypes,” Sax said. “But don’t confuse the tool for the objective, which is to help every boy and girl to reach their full potential.”

At Willard School, the teachers leading single-gender classrooms have no formal training in the method, but have done extensive research and stay in touch with other teachers who have single-gender classes. The Willard students are pen pals with students in single-gender classrooms at Brennan Woods Elementary School in High Ridge, Mo.

The goal, Potter said, is focusing on quality instruction and embracing each gender’s learning style.

And throughout the lessons, teachers work to break down barriers rather than promoting cultural stereotypes.

The girls in Noone’s class worked at their own pace in a math unit, helping out each other and asking questions as needed. Down the hall in Tracie Wagenfeld’s classroom, the sixth-grade boys moved around between lessons and worked quickly.

“Boys learn differently. They need hands-on activities and motor breaks,” Wagenfeld said, explaining that she lets the boys move around the classroom more.

Both classes seem closer-knit, too, the teachers say.

The girls, Noone said, are taking risks and learning how to speak up for themselves. They appear confident asking questions and talking about difficulties they face as pop culture uses television, movies and music to emphasize looks and popularity.

The boys, Wagenfeld said, are breaking down barriers to learn about poetry, talk about body image and learn what it means to be a role model for younger boys.

Lisa Arsenault enrolled her son Ian, hoping he could develop his interests without the pressure of gender stereotypes.

“I thought it would be advantageous for him because he’s not into sports. I’m hoping he’d find a connection with some kids that do things other than sports,” Arsenault said.

In past surveys the school has conducted, parents say their children seem happier, are less argumentative about going to school and feel more successful about their studies.

“As a principal, I’ve been very pleased with the program and excited that it’s generated some interest that fifth-grade teachers want to see if it’s beneficial at a younger age,” Potter said.

Wagenfeld said she’d like to see the program expand to junior high and high school grades.

“There’s no guarantee that (academic) scores will increase,” she said. “The goal is to get the social aspect down and then the academic scores will increase.”

Potter is interested in seeing how the fifth-grade classrooms do this year before considering expanding the program again. However, he’s not an advocate for changing the whole school.

“I don’t believe single-gender is for everybody. The majority of our classes are mixed-gender, and they’re successful, too. This was just an option, a choice that (students) were allowed, and they find it helpful,” Potter said.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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