Allendale High School expanded a pilot program this year that offers single-sex classrooms for Algebra I to include Algebra II students prompted, in part, by requests from students and parents.
Two years into the pilot, Principal Dan Remenap says teachers are enhancing and improving student academic potential to obtain maximum achievement. Around 100 students volunteered for the pilot.
"Going forward, I want to focus a little more on making sure that the instruction is geared toward the specifics of the male and female brain,'' said Remenap, who added that physiological differences in how brains work should not be ignored.
"Giving kids options is important," he said. "Because student success is important we have to be willing to try anything that may help any specific kid reach their maximum potential, so we can't be afraid of trying things outside the box. ''
Remenap said reading "Boys Adrift" by Leonard Saks and other books and research led him to pursue the idea of single-sex classes.
State law requires any school that creates an all-boys classroom, for example, to also create an all-girls classroom at the same grade level. A co-ed option must also be available.
Algebra teacher Audra Murphy said the environment and comfort level has been better for students in the single-sex class. She said she noticed almost immediately there were modest to notable gains in the performance of some students.
"They are comfortable, they have more confidence, they are more willing to try, and are not afraid to make mistakes," said Murphy, about what she's observed over the two years and what a survey of students and parents reinforced.
"I just think if we can help the kids be more comfortable in class, they are going to be more willing to take risks and learn."
Murphy said she's also noticed that in the female classes the student are more willing to engage when she asks them to discuss a math concept in groups. That was apparent this week as her Algebra I class of 20 girls worked on graphing linear inequalities.
Freshman Jordyn Velthuis said she was failing in the co-ed setting and is performing at high level now.
"It easier to focus and learn in here," said Velthuis, 15. "Boys are more rowdy."
Her classmate Eva Zorz, 15, also spoke about a calmer environment and things being less awkward, making it easier to learn.
Teacher Zach Gembis teaches 12 boys in one of his Algebra I classes, including Jordan DeGroot, 15.
"Class is more fun," DeGroot said. "I can focus better and you're not trying to show off.''
Remenap said 70 percent of the males who went from traditional to a single-gender class showed improvement in math and 86 percent of females showed improvement. He said 78 percent of all students showed increased achievement in math as a result of single-gender math courses.
Gembis said boys tend to be more competitive by nature and operate at a higher volume, so taking away distractions can be helpful. He said in co-ed classes, some girls may be less likely to speak up.
"The research on how boys and girls learn differently is really interesting," he said. "Female brains tend to be more connected between the hemispheres of their brain, which is logical thinking and analysis, while males have more connections within the hemisphere of their brain, leading to more direct, active and hands-on things."
He said Algebra I is the most failed class in high schools, and Allendale wasn't happy with its failure rates.
Gembis said the combination of the single-gender classes and the school changing its minimum percentage for receiving math credit to 70 percent have had a positive impact.
Single-sex classrooms are not new to West Michigan. Several districts have tried it including Wyoming, Kenowa Hills, Fennville and Hopkins. Coopersville High School is also currently offering single-sex Algebra I classes.
Gembis said nobody is forced to be in the classes. Rather, students opt-in because they find the environment is more conducive to learning.
In a survey, 78.5 percent said they would sign up for the single-gender math class in the future. On a scale of 1 to 5 -- with five being the highest -- 61.5 percent gave the experience the highest rating and 56.9 percent said they would take a single-gender class offered in another content area.