In public high schools across America, large classes containing a mix of both boys and girls are the norm. However, in a move that's drawing high marks from students, one public school in Maryland has decided to buck that tradition.
At Boonsboro High School in the small, rural town of the same name, an experiment in education is under way.
Although most classes have a mix of boys and girls at varied academic levels, high-achieving students in 9th and 10th grades are placed in single-sex classes for their core subjects of English, math, science and social studies.
"What we really want to do is take that top group of kids and take them to the very highest level they can achieve here so that they're prepared for college," says Rebecca Brown, a student achievement specialist at Boonsboro High. She selects the students who participate in what the school calls the Academy. "By keeping them together in the single-gender classes, they eliminate some of the distractions, if you will, that occur in a typical high school."
Incoming middle school students with high grades and test scores, strong teacher recommendations, and involvement in extracurricular activities are invited to join. But participation in the Academy program is optional, with parents having the final say.
"This is something we don't have to push. This is something people are interested in," says Peggy Pugh, principal of Boonsboro High. "We invite them. We'll have people call and ask questions and they have the right to say 'No, I don't think that's right for my child' or 'That's not an experience I want,' and there are other people who say 'Okay, that sounds like an interesting opportunity for my student.'"
Some 347 students have taken advantage of that opportunity since the Academy began in 2004. The program is run by Michael Bair, who's been at Boonsboro for 20 years and has taught single sex classes of both genders. His 9th grade English class for boys revolves around five books he believes will appeal to boys.
"The novels they're reading now, for lack of a better phrase, they're very manly novels," says Bair. "They're novels that deal with the arrogance of man and the pride of man which is ultimately man's downfall."
Boys in the class work together in small study groups. Vincent and Logan are drawing pictures that relate to the book "The Call of The Wild" by Jack London, the classic story of a dog stolen from his home and sold as a sled dog in the Klondike Gold Rush in northwestern Canada.
"Part of the story, the main character, Buck, he gets abducted and they send him off to the Yukon in a train," says Vincent. "So I'm drawing part of the story where he's in the train. It gets you to visualize the setting of the story and gets you to think more about what's going on in the story, the important events of the story."
Logan agrees. "Instead of just doing worksheets about it, this is a lot more fun."
Close by, two of their classmates are writing an essay together.
"We're each writing a sentence," explains one. "We're taking turns writing sentences for a paragraph to say the strengths and weaknesses of the stories."
Senior Morgan Van Fleet's Academy experience is behind her. She preferred the single-sex approach because she finds coed classes too distracting.
"People [boys and girls] just act differently when they're put together," says Morgan. "To me, it almost seems like it's hindering your chances at developing yourself because you're more focused on 'Oh I wish they'd shut up, oh what do they think of me' - instead of focusing on what's the homework or what's going on in this class, what's the lesson."
Her classmate, Sarah Hull, also liked the Academy program, and feels there's a difference in the learning styles of girls and boys.
"Boys are more hierarchal - like to talk out and show what they know," says Sarah. "But girls are more quiet and like to take things in before they actually voice their opinions."
Cody James, who took the all-boy classes, thinks a more diverse group of kids should be invited into the Academy program. "Maybe instead of just putting the top percentile in there, you should probably focus more on who you're putting in, because it just ends up such as in government with just one huge argument the whole class."
Academy students aren't completely segregated. Aside from taking non-core classes together, some also meet when the school day is over - to tutor students struggling with English, math or other subjects.