PORTLAND – The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is demanding that the Sanford school district stop offering single-gender classes, arguing that the program appears to be based on gender stereotypes in violation of federal law.

For the past three years, Willard School has offered one all-girl, one all-boy and four co-ed classes at the sixth-grade level. The same structure was put in place for the fifth grade this year. The program is voluntary and instruction in areas such as art, music and physical education is co-ed.

Public records provided by the district suggest that improper gender stereotypes are incorporated into the single-gender classrooms, the ACLU of Maine contends. Examples, the organization says, are having girls discuss current events over cocoa while the boys earn points toward prizes from the National Football League by getting more exercise.

The ACLU says programs based on sex stereotypes about how boys and girls learn are not allowed under either the U.S. Constitution or Title IX, a federal law that addresses gender equity in federally funded education programs.

The equal protection clause of the Constitution requires a high threshold for programs that segregate students by categories such as gender, said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine Foundation.

“It has to be a much stronger justification than ‘We think this might be a good idea,’ ” and the reason must be clear before implementation, Heiden said.

The organization sent a letter to the school district Monday that raised the possibility of litigation over the single-sex classrooms. The action is part of a national ACLU campaign launched Monday called “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes.”

Daniel Rose, an attorney for the district, said he needed to review the letter before school officials decide how to respond.

“The school’s position is that there is no education in Sanford that is based on stereotyping of any kind,” he said.

Darcy Dube’s daughter, Brenna, was part of the first group of sixth-graders who had the gender-specific option. Brenna thought it would be interesting to see what class would be like without the distraction of having boys in the room, Dube said.

Brenna had such a good time that her younger brothers, sixth-grader Josiah and fifth-grader Elijah, also opted for single-gender classrooms, Dube said.

“I think they felt much more comfortable in the learning environment and able to share,” Dube said.

Superintendent David Theoharides said the district wanted to offer alternatives for students with different learning styles. He stressed that boys and girls have the same curriculum.

“The reason we designed this program was certain children had certain needs,” he said. “What I feel in some ways is that the ACLU is saying, ‘You can’t address those needs.’

The school has had to hold a lottery for spots in the single-sex classes because interest has exceeded available spaces at each grade level, Principal Chuck Potter said.

The ACLU and several education groups said there is no reliable count of single-gender offerings in public schools in Maine or nationally. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education estimated that there were more than 380 schools that offered them last year, up from about a dozen in 2002.

Single-gender classes have become more common since 2006, when the Bush administration issued regulations meant to promote changes to federal education rules, according to Galen Sherwin, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.

The state Department of Education does not track single-gender programs, said David Connerty-Marin, a department spokesman. Whether to make them available is a local decision, he said.

The National Association for Single Sex Public Education maintains that girls and boys learn in different ways and that single-sex education can break down gender stereotypes when implemented well. Board members of the American Council for CoEducational Schooling, however, criticizes claims about the differences in boys’ and girls’ brains as “pseudoscience” and argues that single-sex education in public schools constitutes institutional sexism.

The teacher for the sixth-grade girls’ class and the unusual nature of a gender-specfic classroom were part of the draw for Debbie Little. Her two older daughters — Tiphanie, who is now in the seventh grade, and Kayleigh, who is in sixth — were enthusiastic about the prospect, she said, and she said she’d be disappointed if the youngest, Ariannah, does not have the same option.

“I just felt their learning environment — learning experience — in the all-girl class was a positive experience for them,” she said.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

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