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Separating the sexes: a new direction for public education?

Bush administration's plan coincides with rising popularity of such schools.

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As a member of the districtwide student council her sophomore year, Monique Harrington, who is now a junior at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, stood before 300 classmates and sailed through the speech that she had prepared.

Remembering that day, she says, "It was nothing. These are my people. I can talk to them." She didn't stumble later that summer either, when she addressed a room packed with professors.

"There are a number of miracle stories to tell," says Leonard Sax, a psychologist and the director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). And these stories, of confident young women like Monique, are being offered by advocates as a reason to continue expanding single-sex education into public schools and classrooms.

First there was Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the decision that outlawed racial segregation in America's public schools. Then came Title IX in 1972 - the landmark law that declared discrimination by sex illegal in schools that receive federal money. Both decisions affirmed a steady march toward integrated public schools in the United States.

In the past decade, however, single-sex schools have surged in popularity. Today, there are 25 same-sex public schools in the nation, almost all formed after 1996, according to NASSPE. Another 72 schools offer single-sex classes. And a dozen more are slated to open in the fall. Some experts predict this trend will only continue, giving 2005 the potential to become a banner year for same-sex education.

Because of success stories like that of Girls High, and the desire to present parents with more education options for their children, in 2001 the Bush administration set out to make it easier to form such schools.

This March, the US Department of Education unveiled a proposal to change Title IX. Whereas in the past, only limited subjects like gym or sex education could be held in single-sex classrooms, under the new regulations, a school may create an all-girls physics class, for example, as long as the same caliber of textbooks and equipment is available to boys in a coeducational setting.

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