Georgia rethinks same-sex schools

Posted: Tuesday, March 25, 2008

GREENSBORO, Ga. Greene County public school officials are rethinking their drastic, game-changing plan to separate boys and girls in every class next school year.

A revised proposal expected within two weeks likely will keep genders mixed at the county high school and allow parents to choose whether to enroll younger kids in the single-gender classes, schools Superintendent Shawn McCollough said last week.

Officials in the struggling school district last month stirred up national press coverage and mixed, often angry reactions from parents when they suddenly announced the single-gender schools mandate.

Although McCollough presented the plan as a bold, history-making move to lift dismal test scores, some experts said the plan as approved would violate federal civil rights law because it wouldn't give parents any choice.

Some parents in the largely black and low-income area around Greensboro balked at the plan because board members didn't take any public input before unanimously pushing through the single-gender schools plan in February.

During three public meetings that month after the school board approved the change McCollough had consultants explain to parents why his plan is the best option for the school system, which ranks toward the bottom in the state.

But trouble for officials began shortly after the Feb. 4 decision.

Two school board members rescinded their approval, saying they weren't aware of the extent of the overhaul, and moved last month to overturn it. They were defeated in a 3-2 vote.

And parents continued to speak out against the plan at contentious school board meetings.

McCollough later apologized for not taking any input before recommending the plan to board members. But he said he remained firm in his belief that the single-gender model was backed by research and would help students focus on learning.

"I am passionate about helping our students succeed," McCollough said in a message to parents this month. "Frankly, I could not imagine any parent who would not want to give their children the best opportunity possible for academic success. I still believe ... this is the best plan. I would ask that the community move beyond how I handled the process and embrace the merits of this solution for helping our children."

McCollough said he regretted the lack of support from those in the community who "rejected the plan outright, choosing instead to decry any change whatsoever and wanting to cling to the current system despite heavy evidence that it is not working."

But the very vocal opposition from parents did not let up, and community members gathered earlier this month at a Greene County church to vent about the single-gender plan and discuss what to do next.

Still stinging from the recent approval of a charter school serving the more affluent, mostly white area around Lake Oconee which many said would amount to segregation parents said they felt board members weren't being responsive.

"I think that community organization with some aggression and some teeth is the order of the day," the Rev. Roi Johnson said during the March 6 meeting, held at the Siloam church he pastors.

"We've got to make (board members) uncomfortable until they are responsive," he said.

Annie Grant, a former Greene County elementary teacher who attended the meeting, said she and a few other teachers also had trouble last year getting answers from board members when they were laid off because of school budget problems.

"It's been one wild ride," she said last week.

Grant and the 100 community members who met at the church consulted with lawyers about asking a judge to stop the school district from segregating genders. Some parents even talked about withholding kids from school in protest.

However, with news that the school district may pull back on its plan, parents who oppose it are waiting to act, Johnson said last week.

Regardless of the details of McCollough's revised plan, it's still likely to include big changes for Greene County students next year.

The original plan also called for school uniforms and a retooling of the system's middle school model, which McCollough has said doesn't work.

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