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Idaho single-sex elementary classrooms violated federal law

Posted 3:40 p.m. Wednesday
Updated 3:42 p.m. Wednesday

— Officials with the U.S. Department of Education said recently that an Idaho school district violated federal law when it segregated elementary students into single-sex classrooms.

Several years ago, Middleton Heights Elementary was among the dozens of public schools targeted by the American Civil Liberties Union over whether single-sex learning should be continued.

"School children in Middleton Heights Elementary deserve educational improvements, but there is no evidence that single-sex classrooms are effective in improving outcomes," said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with ACLU's Women's Rights Project, in a prepared statement. "Strategies for improving instruction should be based on solid evidence, not pseudoscience and stereotypes about the way boys and girls learn and behave."

According to the Department of Education, Idaho school officials violated Title IX — a federal law banning sex discrimination in education — because they failed to adequately justify the need to separate boys from the girls for all school subjects in grades second through fourth.

Furthermore, the investigation found that the school offered larger classroom space for the boys to exercise and move around, while the girls were encouraged to maintain a "quiet environment." School officials also emphasized competition for boys and cooperation for girls.

The department sent a letter informing the ACLU of its decision earlier this month.

"These uneven educational opportunities, as well as uneven disciplinary regimes, appear to have been offered to students on the basis of sex alone, according to sex stereotypes," federal investigators concluded.

Single-sex classes began proliferating roughly 10 years ago after the federal government relaxed restrictions. Schools were particularly eager to change up classroom structure after research showed that boys, particularly minority boys, were graduating at lower rates than girls and faring worse on tests.

Yet the surge of splitting up the sexes prompted the ACLU to launch a national campaign, Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes, in 2012. The group argued that there was no proof single-sex classrooms worked, countering instead that evidence showed that it enhanced gender stereotypes and lead to sexism.

Eventually, the group sent cease-and-desist letters to school districts in Maine, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia. It also asked state officials to investigate single-sex programs in Florida, while sending public record requests to schools in another five states, including Idaho. ACLU eventually filed a complaint against the Gem State later that year based on the documents obtained through the record requests

The Middleton elementary school, nestled in a town of around 5,500 just 30 miles west of Boise, began its single-sex classrooms in 2006. Officials agreed to stop doing so this year as a result of the federal investigation. The district will remain under federal supervision at least through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

"There are currently no single gender classrooms nor is there any intention of having single gender classes in the immediate future," said Superintendent Josh Middleton, in an emailed response on Wednesday. "The district acknowledges that if the practice was to be implemented again, (federal) approved training would be required."

An estimated 500 public schools across the country offered some all-boy and all-girl classrooms as of 2012, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, an advocacy group. In 2002, only about a dozen schools were separating the sexes.

The organization says it no longer updates the list after accusing the ACLU of using it to target schools with single-sex classrooms.

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