SANFORD, Maine — The school committee remains firm in their belief that offering single-gender classes to some elementary school students is in their best interests but voted to halt the classes Monday because of a litigation threat by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
“We find it regrettable that the ACLU, fueled by inaccurate assumptions about our voluntary program and the level of understanding of student learning, has chosen to elevate ideology over the needs of individual students,” the school committee said in a statement read by Chairman Don Jamison Monday night. “However, we are mindful the mission of the Sanford School Department is to educate, not litigate. Accordingly, we have decided to suspend the program indefinitely.
“In doing so, we stress that our decision is based solely on our desire to protect our community from the stress of litigation and should not in any way be construed as our agreement with the ACLU’s position or that our voluntary program violated any laws. We encourage the ACLU to put aside its own biases and look more closely at the specifics of our program and the benefits it has produced for our students as individuals.”
The ACLU of Maine alleged May 21 the decision by the school committee to institute one single-gender class for girls and another for boys in fifth and sixth grade at Willard School was based on what they described as harmful gender stereotypes and that it contravened federal law.
“Sex segregation in public schools is not only illegal, but also unfair to both male and female students,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine Foundation, in a written statement May 21. “Gender stereotypes are no basis for sound constitutional education policy.”
In a statement, the ACLU said it would consider further action, including filing lawsuits and administrative complaints with state and federal agencies if the classes in Sanford and in other states weren’t ended, as part of its “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign. The ACLU of Maine said an investigation they conducted showed single-gender programs at Willard School were based on disputed theories that suggest that boys and girls learn so differently that they need to be educated separately.
The school committee instituted two single-gender classrooms in 2009 for sixth-grade students as an option. They proved so popular, the program was expanded in 2011 to include one fifth-grade class of girls and another of boys.
The four members of the school committee present at Monday’s meeting voted unanimously to suspend the program. Member Adam Cote was away on military duty.
“I think it’s sad someone thinks they can take it away from us, and I resent it,” said school committee member Marguerite Herlihy.
Willard School teacher Barbara Noone said she appreciated the opportunity to have taught one of the classes for the past three years.
“I don’t know how the ACLU got into the education field,” said Noone, a teacher for 20 years. She said the 75 students who participated in the program, “are not the same; they’re different.
“For some, it was a gift.”
Madison McFarland, an eighth-grade student at Sanford Junior High School who took part in a single-gender class at Willard School, wrote a letter to the school committee that she forwarded to some news organizations.
“The single-gender classes build confidence,” wrote McFarland. She said other students told her there was no peer pressure in a single-gender classroom, students were more comfortable and felt they could be heard.
“Willard School may be a public school, but who is to say that public schools can’t get creative with education,” McFarland wrote. “The only stereotype is the ACLU’s stereotype that single-gendered classes are a negative idea.”
Willard School has six fifth-grade classes and six sixth-grade classes.
The school committee said many of the students whose families exercised the single-gender option “thrived in ways they could not have in a more traditional classroom setting.”
“We did make a difference for some kids,” said Superintendent David Theoharides.
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