Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 8, 2008

Closed meetings, closed minds

Because I watched Morgan Hill go through the tumultuous process of drawing attendance boundaries when its school district opened a second high school a few years ago, I’ve been very interested to see how the Gilroy Unified School District would handle the process as it plans for the opening of Christopher High School.

So far, I’m disappointed on two fronts: First, that an idea proposed by the Gilroy Dispatch editorial board last year – single-gender high schools – doesn’t seem to have been given any real consideration, and second, that the bulk of the boundary-drawing work is being done without public input and oversight.

Instead of considering single-gender schools and holding open meetings, GUSD hired a consultant to lead a 17-member committee of parents, teachers and school officials in drawing geography-based boundaries behind closed doors.

Committee members say that they are working hard to balance the two high schools from a socioeconomic standpoint. Because members of the public can’t monitor their work, taxpayers, parents, students and staff have no choice but to take their word for that.

Why the secrecy? I don’t like the reason that committee member and Gilroy Teachers Association president Michelle Nelson gave reporter Sara Suddes: “They want to make sure it’s all finalized before they spill the beans.”

That sounds like a prescription for having only token public input. It might be more efficient, but it’s not the way to provide open government or to ensure taxpayer and constituent input and buy-in. Gilroyans won’t see the plan or have a chance to comment on it until late in the boundary-drawing process. Suddes reported that after two public meetings, the committee “will tweak their decision if necessary” before they make their recommendation to GUSD trustees.

Christopher High School, slated to open in the fall of 2009, will be located in Gilroy’s prosperous northwest quad, so making it a true neighborhood school would likely create schools with out-of-proportion socioeconomic student populations.

At the same time, no one wants attendance boundaries that resemble gerrymandered statehouse and congressional districts. As Nelson said, “We don’t want it to look like a puzzle.”

If the committee had been doing its work in public and taking input all along the way, it might have heard support for single-gender high schools or other creative ideas. Instead, that option apparently has been dismissed without a full airing and the committee is a long way down the tired path of deciding attendance based on geography instead of gender.

I understand that single-gender high schools are not the norm in public education. But that doesn’t mean they’re a bad idea. Indeed, in a school district that’s struggling to raise test scores and attendance and graduation rates, and to close an achievement gap that’s measurable in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and gender, trying something that works well in private schools is an idea that’s worth serious consideration at the very least.

A 2004 Christian Science Monitor article reported that the long-held perception that single-gender schools are ideal for girls but not for boys is changing: “Boys learn best when they can move around, perform hands-on activities, and interact with teachers in a lighthearted, joking manner. ‘There’s simply a tempo and a sequence to the way boys learn that is not better or worse but different,’ says Rick Hawley, head of the University School, the largest private boys’ school in America.”

What’s more, the the National Association for Single Sex Public Education reports that single-gender schools “can boost grades and test scores for BOTH girls and boys” and “can break down gender stereotypes. Girls in single-sex educational settings are more likely to take classes in math, science, and information technology. Boys in single-sex schools are more likely to pursue interests in art, music, drama, and foreign languages.” NASSPE cautions that providing separate facilities isn’t enough to achieve these results. Understanding of and curriculum tailored to gender-based differences in learning are critical for success.

Basing high school attendance on gender avoids the divisiveness that can result from geography-based boundaries. In addition, the schools are automatically balanced according to ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

The timing is right: Gilroy is opening a second high school just a few years after the federal government made it feasible to create single-gender public schools, and at a time when educators understand much more about the benefits of single-gender education and how to maximize them.

It’s too bad that GUSD and its closed-door boundaries committee are poised to miss this unique opportunity.

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