COLUMBIA --- A popular education option in South Carolina's public schools has dwindled because of budget cuts, the outgoing state superintendent said Tuesday, as he cautioned lawmakers not to disrupt what's working.
South Carolina has been a national leader in public single-gender education since 2007, when state schools chief Jim Rex hired the nation's first -- and still only -- statewide coordinator to foster the idea and train teachers. By 2009, roughly 22,000 students in 214 schools were learning in boys-only and girls-only classes.
The number has waned since, despite a growing demand. The Palmetto State still leads the nation in public single-sex programs, at 124 schools with 17,000 students.
"Single-gender took off, and it's no secret. It's an idea whose time has come," said Rex, who said he saw the benefits as the former president of all-female Columbia College. "The theory is, the things that work well, you see more of. That's the way it's supposed to work. But you have to have resources. If you don't have enough money, you do the things you can afford."
Rex said that single-gender is a relatively inexpensive choice to offer, compared to others, but it does require an adequate number of teachers, and some training costs.
Under federal law, public schools that offer boys-only and girls-only classes must do so as an addition to traditional coed classes. Teacher layoffs can force schools to abandon the program if there aren't enough to teach all three per grade or subject. The Education Department estimates that districts have cut several thousand teachers in the last two years.
Expanding single-gender education was an early part of Rex's efforts to give parents more options within public schools. Others included Montessori classes and nature-based learning.
"There's a price to pay. You can't have more choice and improvement and innovation and continue to take resources away from these schools you're asking to implement these innovations," Rex said.
Statewide coordinator David Chadwell stressed it is a choice that's not for every student, and that adequate teacher training and buy-in from a school's leaders are key to a program's success. But for students who benefit, it offers more freedom and less anxiety, because they're not trying to impress students of the other gender, and lessons are attuned to their interests.
"We have an opportunity to be more open, rather than self-conscious about whether we're going to say something and get teased," said 13-year-old Emily Tuten, a seventh-grader at Hand Middle.
Her mother, Nancy Tuten, is a strong supporter. Her 12th-grade daughter also went through the program at Dent Middle in Columbia, the state's first to offer a full-day single-gender option, and she believes it played a role in her confidence and independence.
"A lot of girls lose their voice. They're very confident in fifth grade" but they lose it during the awkward middle school years, she said.
Parent Regina Smith says she's nervous about the budget cuts, and what it might mean for her sixth-grader.
"I want him to stay in single-gender," she said. "Sometimes we don't put our money where our mouth is ... and that's unfortunate."