Almanac

Schools - September 7, 2011

Where the boys are: Ormondale School accommodates "boy-heavy" third-grade group with all-boy classes.

by Renee Batti

From the start, the third-graders at Portola Valley's Ormondale School set records. A larger-than-usual group when the children arrived at the school as kindergartners, the class was unusual in another way: The boys outnumbered the girls on a scale never seen before, at least in recent recollection, in the Portola Valley School District, according to Superintendent Tim Hanretty.

Now, with about 20 students more than the other grade-level cohorts at Ormondale, the third-grade class is made up of 70 boys and 36 girls — a 66 to 34 percent ratio.

With the start of the new school year, Ormondale is using a fresh approach to teaching the 106 students at that grade level: When school began on Aug. 29, third-graders were divided into five classrooms, two of which were made up of boys only.

The idea for the change to boys-only classrooms, and the decision to go forward with it, didn't happen overnight. Ormondale Principal Jennifer Warren and the school's teachers have pondered methods of better serving students in "boy-heavy" classes from the beginning, Ms. Warren said.

"Year after year, a lot of little things have happened" to adjust teaching and supportive strategies, she said. But this year, with the backing of the school board, and with enough parents willing to have their sons in boys-only classes, the school created single-gender classes for the first time ever.

"Parents had the option," Ms. Warren said. "We would not have moved forward without (parental) consent."

Before the classes were launched, "there was a period of diving into the research" on single-gender classes, Ms. Warren said. Affected teachers and other staff members spent time with staff at the Town School for Boys in San Francisco, for example, picking up ideas and information that might help smooth the way for Ormondale teachers and administrators involved in the new project.

There is ample research pointing to learning differences between boys and girls, and teachers of the all-boys classes are using methods that accommodate some of the differences, Ms. Warren said. For example, she said, "boys need kinesthetic ways to learn. They need more movement breaks, opportunities to move around in the classrooms." One example of accommodating this need for movement, she added, is to allow them to practice spelling exercises while skipping rope.

Ms. Warren said the preponderance of boys in the third and other grade levels at the school has led staff to "look at our entire literacy library" in general, and offer changes in the third-grade classes in particular. For example, whereas "Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which has a female protagonist, has been a staple for classroom reading, a switch to "Farmer Boy" has been made for third-grade boys. That book, written by the same author, has a male protagonist.

Ms. Warren stressed that the changes for third-grade students are designed to serve the needs of both boys and girls. And, she added, much time, energy and thinking is being devoted to the first-time project to monitor its progress and results. The school's counselor is involved on an ongoing basis, and is available as a resource for the teachers, she said.

In addition, a research assistant has been brought in to collect data in all five third-grade classes so that when the district considers whether to continue the class groupings in fourth and fifth grades, there will be solid information "to make a thoughtful recommendation to the board," Ms. Warren said.

Although this year's third-grade class is the most "boy heavy" in the district, it merely reflects the high end of an astonishing trend. Ormondale's student body is currently 65 percent male, Ms. Warren said.

Superintendent Hanretty noted that the district's fourth- and fifth-grade classes reflect the boy-heavy trend. First- and second-grade classes are even more heavily male, he added, though not as much so as the record-breaking third-grade class.

But whether this year's kindergarten class, which Mr. Hanretty said is "fairly balanced" between boys and girls, indicates a reversal of the trend won't be known for some time to come.

Other all-boy classes?

Although there are a number of private schools that offer single-gender classes, the state Department of Education doesn't track public schools that have such classes, according to Stephanie Papas, a department consultant.

Ms. Papas said public schools are allowed to teach single-gender classes, with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1990s supporting that option. She noted that within the last 10 years, the federal education department also backed that option, though it emphasized that placement in a single-gender class must be voluntary.

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