GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a public school experiment with single sex education. Our special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has the story.
JOHN MERROW: Bailey Bridge Middle School-- grades six through eight, with more than 1,600 students-- was like most other middle schools in the country until last August. A glitch in the school's computer system resulted in a random assignment of 98 percent girls to one section of the sixth grade and 98 percent to another, leaving three sections, or teams, as they're known-- coed.
DEBORAH MARKS: Teachers started flying in my office, flying down. "I've got all boys in this... in this first period."
JOHN MERROW: Principal Deborah Marks had just three days to decide what to do.
DEBORAH MARKS: Then Anita Saunders came into my office, and she went, "Debbie, I've got all girls except for this one little boy. What am I supposed to do with him?" I didn't sleep for three nights because I had to make a decision of fixing it, so I moved just those few.
JOHN MERROW: So you did the easy thing?
DEBORAH MARKS: Yeah. But I did the right thing.
TEACHER: The next term is "rhyme."
JOHN MERROW: So began an experiment at bailey bridge middle school. For the first time, sixth graders were offered single-sex classes in English, math, science, and social studies.
NINA SAUNDERS, 6th Grade Teacher: I guess I was pretty apprehensive about it because I had no idea what it would be like, and I was never interested in being around all girls.
STUDENT: Well, my mom thought that if we were separated now, we might not learn to get along with boys as much when we get older.
STUDENT: Most of my friends were in the all-girl team, but I mean, I still got friends that are on the boy team, but I wasn't very happy about it.
JOHN MERROW: It turns out there was no better time for the change. The education law known as "no child left behind" includes a provision for single-sex education in public schools and authorizes money for schools willing to try it.
LEONARD SAX: The number one advantage of single-sex education for both girls and boys is that it enhances educational opportunity.
JOHN MERROW: Leonard Sax, a psychologist, is founder and executive director of the National Association for Single- Sex Education.
LEONARD SAX: It allows girls to find out who they are, to pursue their interests in math and computer science. It allows boys who might be interested in art, music, drama, to pursue those interests. In coed schools, girls and boys are funneled into gender stereotypes. In single-sex schools, you break down gender stereotypes, you enhance educational opportunity.
LENORA LAPIDUS: Government has no business segregating by sexes and engaging in invidious discrimination.
JOHN MERROW: Lenora Lapidus is an attorney for the ACLU.
LENARA LAPIDUS: Separate is not equal. This was a long-standing ruling from the 1954 decision in "Brown vs. Board of Education" that challenged resegregated schools, and the Supreme Court report said separating the races is inherently unequal, so you cannot have separate but equal.
JOHN MERROW: Suppose within one's school, you could have equal resources for the single- sex boys' class, the single-sex girls' class, and the coed class, and offer families a choice.
LENARA LAPIDUS: Well, I think the question again is, what would you gain by that? Why not have a separate class for black students and a separate class for white?
JOHN MERROW: Because that's inherently unconstitutional.
LENARA LAPIDUS: And we believe the same is true with gender.
ANNOUNCER: In home economics, the girls turn to newspapers for help in planning nutritious and economical menus.
JOHN MERROW: The ACLU and other critics point to 30 years ago when schools routinely assigned girls to home economics classes and boys to shop classes. It was this gender stereotyping that compelled Congress to pass Title IX in 1972, outlawing discrimination based on gender and prohibiting single-sex education in public schools. Soon, however, the Office of Civil Rights will issue new guidelines amending Title IX regulations and clearing the way for single-sex public education.
JOHN MERROW: Separating kids by gender, how is that different from racial segregation?
SPOKESMAN: Racial categories are socially constructed. You can't look at a piece of brain tissue under the microscope and tell me whether it came from a white person or a black person, but you can look at a piece of brain tissue under the microscope and say whether it came from a woman or a man.
JOHN MERROW: So far, at Bailey Bridge, teachers, parents, and students have been pleasantly surprised by the results.
SPOKESPERSON: I've had one parent tell me they wanted their child out. Since then, I've had parents request their child be taken out of coed and put into the single grouping.
PARENT: I thought, "Wow, this is kind of a nice little taste of both worlds. He's almost like in his own little private school there, with an all-boy team."
PARENT: I didn't really realize the full aspect of what it would do for my child, but I absolutely love it. It has been amazing.
NINA SAUNDERS: I feel like that I've died and gone to heaven.
NINA SAUNDERS: All right, let's go over to the...
JOHN MERROW: Nina Saunders taught coed classes for 34 years. This year, she's teaching only girls.
NINA SAUNDERS: I have a better relationship, I think, with the girls, with their parents, with the administration, with other teachers. ( Girls laughing ) I really enjoy it. It's kind of brought the beauty of teaching back to me that I hadn't had in many years.
STUDENT: You don't seem to get jealous as much when you're on, like, all-girls. And you can learn more, you pay attention more.
STUDENT: You're not afraid to ask questions. That you don't understand something, you can raise your hand and ask it. ( Girls talking )
JOHN MERROW: Discipline issues have dramatically declined. Academic achievement has improved.
STUDENT: My grades have gotten better than they were. It's not... they haven't, like, skyrocketed or anything...
STUDENT: Mine are good right now. They're real good.
STUDENT: They've gone up a whole lot better than last year, a whole lot.
JOHN MERROW: The boys said the same thing-- all but one.
JOHN MERROW: If your grades are better, raise your hand, would you please? So almost all of you. All except George, so... doing better.
JOHN MERROW: Are you doing worse?
STUDENT: Because when there's all boys in the class, I don't really care what they think. My mom says that it's helped my studies, but, I mean, how does she know? My grades have dropped some.
JOHN MERROW: But George's mother does know.
JOHN MERROW: Is he doing better academically than he was?
JOHN MERROW: He is?
PARENT: Yes, and it hasn't hurt his social life at all. He still has a girlfriend, but he sees her at lunch. And that's the only time you're supposed to see your girlfriend. In the class, you're supposed to be in class. ( Laughs )
JOHN MERROW: Has he said that he does not want to stay in all- boys next year?
PARENT: Yes, he did.
JOHN MERROW: And your reaction?
PARENT: "Too bad." ( Laughs )
JOHN MERROW: It turns out Bailey Bridge is part of an emerging trend. Three years ago, only four public schools in the country provided single-sex options. Today, almost 50 do.
SPOKESPERSON: Other school systems have been here. Colleges and universities are sending graduate students to come, and they're writing papers in the master's programs and the doctoral programs about this. It's a big topic right now.
JOHN MERROW: However, this attention has not persuaded critics. The ACLU says Title IX should stay exactly the way it is. In fact, the ACLU has successfully sued to shut down single-sex public schools on the grounds of gender discrimination.
LENORA LAPIDUS: You may have these anecdotes, but the research does not show any conclusive improvement academically in single-sex programs. The other thing that single-sex schools cannot address is interactions in society. This is a society made up of women and men interacting and...
JOHN MERROW: It's a coed world?
LENORA LAPIDUS: It's a coed world, and if students are not a part of that at a younger age, then they're not learning the skills to interact that they will need later on.
LEONARD SAX: People who say that single- sex education isn't valid because it's not the real world are people who have not taken a moment to think about how a school differs from the workplace. School is not the workplace. It should not be the workplace. It should differ from the workplace in just the same way that the soldier's training ground differs from the battlefield. And right now, the problem with our schools is that they're too much like the real world in the sense that you're referring to. And the result is just like in the real world: Some boys are failing, some girls are failing; they're dropping out. They're being lost.
JOHN MERROW: For now, Deborah Marks' problem is not the law as much as it is logistics. More than 50 percent of this year's sixth want to remain in single-sex classrooms next year.
JOHN MERROW: Deborah Marks, rebel?
DEBORAH MARKS: No. Deborah Marks, risk taker. Deborah Marks, believer in children and doing things for them so that they will succeed -- unorthodox maybe -- unorthodox in the way that you go about doing things for children. Some children can't fit in a regular structure day, and you have to fit the day to the child so they can succeed. And if single-gender grouping for some children will make them the leaders of tomorrow, I'm all for it-- all for it.
JOHN MERROW: Bailey Bridge Middle School is hoping to receive a grant for $28,000 from the National Science Foundation to study single-sex classrooms. When the U.S. Department of Education releases the new regulations, we'll find out whether single-sex education is just another fad or an important new direction in education.