ATLANTA - In Travis Brown's sixth-grade class, they're making robots - more than a dozen boys standing around workstations, chatting among themselves as they chop cardboard with scissors or glance at comic books for inspiration.
Down the hall, a room full of girls sit in near silence at their desks, working independently on the same project.
The scenes last month at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School are likely to become more common in the coming years as a change in federal regulations is expected to make it easier for public schools to experiment with single-gender schools or classrooms.
Supporters argue that boys and girls learn differently and that single-sex classrooms can help both genders perform better. Critics compare it to the "separate but equal" segregation-era classrooms.
At least 223 public schools scattered throughout the country, from New York to California, already offer some single-sex classrooms, according to Leonard Sax, the director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. He says that's up from just four in 1998.
Mr. Sax predicts thousands more public schools will join the movement once the U.S. Department of Education finalizes new Title IX regulations first proposed in March 2004.
Backers of single-sex classes point to a growing body of research that shows the genders learn in different ways. At elementary school age, they say, girls' vision and thought processes have developed to respond better to color and detail, while boys' brains are more apt at processing motion and direction.
Though those differences smooth out over time, they can have a big impact, advocates say.
"If you don't understand those differences and you teach boys and girls as if they were the same, the end result is a kindergarten classroom where the boys tell you drawing is for girls and a middle school classroom where girls tell you computers are for boys," said Mr. Sax, one of the nation's leading proponents of single-sex education. "If you don't understand gender differences, you end up furthering gender stereotypes."
Not everyone agrees. A 2004 statement from the American Association of University Women says single-sex classrooms distract from real problems in schools and "would throw out the most basic legal standards prohibiting sex discrimination in education."
Lisa Maatz, the group's public policy director, said not enough research exists to show that single-sex schools truly improve performance.
"There are other ways to close the achievement gaps that are proven," she said, mentioning smaller class sizes and extra training for teachers. "People are looking for a single silver bullet, but there's no quick fix."
Ms. Maatz said the effort also appears to continue a Bush administration trend of chipping away at Title IX, which ensures equal opportunity for male and female students.
"This is another attempt to modify, in a really unfortunate and unnecessary way, one of the most successful civil rights laws this country has ever had," she said.
IN RICHMOND COUNTY, Jenkins-White Elementary School began single-sex classes this past school year, and they have proven popular with parents, said Pat Burau, the county's assistant superintendent for school improvement.
Research shows that gender-separate instruction can be beneficial, but schools must have the numbers to support breaking up classes along gender lines and teachers who are able to teach in those situations, she said.
In the fall, Westside High School will test the concept in some freshman-level classes, Mrs. Burau said. The freshman year is an issue because of the high number of students schools "lose," she said.
In Columbia County, Harlem Middle School experimented with single-sex classes in eighth-grade core courses during the past school year. Principal Walker Davis said last month that he thinks the program was successful, and he plans to expand it to sixth and seventh grades next year.
Mr. Sax said that as more same-sex schools crop up, data are beginning to show results. He and other proponents point to an elementary school in Deland, Fla., where fourth-graders last year were randomly assigned to a single-sex classroom or a coed one.
In Woodward Elementary School's coed classrooms, 57 percent of girls and 37 percent of boys passed a state writing test. In the single-sex classes, 86 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls passed.
"There is greater confidence, greater enjoyment, greater interest," said David Chadwell, the lead teacher at The Two Academies at Dent, a pair of single-gender middle schools in Columbia. "Also, on the teacher side, the teachers are enjoying teaching this way."
In Atlanta, single-sex classes have been conducted at several middle schools as part of a pilot program of sorts for next year, when Carson Honors Preparatory School will split into two campuses, one for boys and one for girls.
The middle school, where 69 percent of eighth-graders failed a state math test last year, draws its student body largely from two government housing complexes.
"The failure rate and the dropout rate in that particular area is enormously high," said Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall. "This is a strategy designed to really turn around what is a failing environment for lots and lots of young people."
Ms. Hall and others in Atlanta say they like the results they've seen the past three years at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where more than 400 sixth- and seventh-grade pupils are divided by gender.
Mr. Brown, whose boys' math class was building the cardboard robots, said the system lets him gear his lessons specifically for an all-male class.
"It gives me a chance to prepare especially for them," he said. "I know they like things that are sports-related; I know they're going to have to get involved.
"I don't expect them to sit still, so I know I'm going to have to have some hands-on stuff."
CURRENT FEDERAL RULES allow single-sex schools, but only when a district creates a comparable school for the other gender. That restriction would disappear under the proposed changes.
Rules for schools that offer only some single-sex classes also would be relaxed. Current rules allow such classes in specific cases, such as gym classes that involve contact sports. The proposed changes would allow classes to be created any time administrators think they meet special needs for their students.
Staff Writers Greg Gelpi and Donnie Fetter contributed to this article.
WHAT THE NUMBERS SHOW
About four months after Harlem Middle School started separating genders for eighth-grade core classes, Principal Walker Davis reported the following changes:
- About 35 percent of pupils improved their grades by at least five points.
- About 60 percent stayed the same.
- About 5 percent showed a five-point or more drop in grades.
Woodward Elementary School found differences in test results:
- 86 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls passed a state writing test in single-sex classes.
- In coed classrooms, 57 percent of girls and 37 percent of boys passed the test.
- From staff and wire reports
For research supporting single-sex education, visit: www.singlesexschools.org/evidence.html.
For arguments against separating students by gender, visit www.aauw.org, search for "single-sex education" and choose first link.