AUGUSTA — For Madison McFarland, a 15-year-old freshman at Sanford High School, being in an all-girls’ classroom four years ago warded off some of the discomfort of her early adolescence.

“I was a lot more vocal and felt when I spoke, everybody listened,” McFarland said Thursday at a legislative hearing. “With just the girls, we felt more comfortable just to be ourselves, and the boys did as well.”

McFarland’s testimony came on a bill that could revive the program at her old school, which was shut down last year under the threat of legal action.

L.D. 699, the bill sponsored by Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, would give public elementary and secondary schools the option of using single-gender classes under state education guidelines.

But the program would have to be optional, and schools would have to offer an equal co-ed opportunity. Schools would also have to review the classes every two years.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the group that threatened legal action last year if Sanford’s Willard School didn’t pull the classes, opposed the bill Thursday, saying segregating classrooms is unconstitutional sex discrimination.

“All students deserve to reach their full potential, regardless of their sex,” read written testimony on the bill from Oamshiri Amarasingham, an ACLU of Maine attorney. “That starts with a (high-quality), fair education that focuses on techniques that work and teaches all students as individuals, not as stereotypes.”

The Sanford School Committee suspended split classes in June. The sixth-grade classes had been in effect for three years at Willard School. In the last year, the single-sex program expanded to fifth grade.

Willard School Principal Chuck Potter challenged the ACLU’s arguments, saying a spring 2010 survey found that 85 percent of parents felt that single-sex classrooms helped their children’s growth.

In written testimony for the hearing, Potter said the program’s goal “was for students to form a community of same-sex students who were free of distraction by the opposite gender” and who were “comfortable enough to take risks that would not have been tried in a co-ed setting.”

At the time of the program’s suspension, Superintendent David Theoharides told the Portland Press Herald the committee halted the program because of the legal threat from the ACLU of Maine, but it didn’t believe it was in violation of the law and students received benefit from the classes.

The national ACLU has led a campaign against single-sex classrooms in 15 states from Maine to Washington. The Sanford situation was referenced in an August 2012 report, which said split classrooms reinforce gender stereotypes.

The report quotes a Sanford newsletter saying students in the girls’ class have “a daily cup of cocoa as they read the Portland Press Herald and discuss local, national and global events,” while a class for boys have “an exercise area within the class and all the young men have the opportunity to exercise.”

In written testimony Thursday, Potter said the ACLU of Maine “formed an opinion about our program without ever visiting our program.”

Zachary Heiden, the ACLU of Maine’s legal director, said the group has heard rumors of other single-sex classes in Maine, but hasn’t confirmed them.

A 2010 story in the Kennebec Journal said the Augusta Board of Education passed a plan to offer single-sex math classes. A 2011 Press Herald story quoted a Maine Principals’ Association official saying Presque Isle also had an all-girl math class that began in the early 1990s.

According to the national ACLU, federal restrictions on split classrooms were eased in 2006. Before then, it said the programs numbered in the dozens. After 2006, hundreds were introduced, it said.

Michael Shepherd 620-7015
mshepherd@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @mikeshepherdme