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Williamsville North algebra separates the girls from the boys

As ninth-graders at Williamsville North High School filed into their algebra classrooms on the first day of school, they took their seats and got settled. But as these students looked around their math class, they noticed something that usually only exists in private schools: their algebra classes had been segregated by gender.

Gary Collichio, the principal at Williamsville North, decided to segregate the algebra 1R classes this year for the incoming freshmen. After a discussion with the administrative team at North, he made the choice to implement a new method of educating the students enrolled in this math course.

“We want everybody to be successful,” he said. “What we came up with is that we were going to try to segregate by gender, and the research that we read this summer in administrative groups pointed to the fact that there are less distractions. With gender segregated groups, the communication is a little better because the culture is quite different.”

This is the first time a separation of genders in the classroom has been intentionally scheduled at Wiliamsville North, and it will probably be the only occurrence of it moving forward. The administrative staff at North has no plans to institute this approach schoolwide, and they have no plans to do anything with this new class structure next year unless they decide it has been beneficial for the students.

“There’s other schools, private schools, that are separated by gender, and some of their models are pretty effective. We’re trying to take the best research out there and we’re trying to instill it in a limited capacity. But I’ll try anything,” Collichio said with a laugh.

“I want the students to fly, I want them to go to the university that they want to go to, I want them to have every opportunity they can,” he continued. “And math and science is a huge emphasis lately. With colleges and everything, even industry.”

Collichio is a proponent of the idea that a good experience in the classroom makes it easier for students to learn difficult material.

“I wanted to try it out. And the community is open to suggestions for betterment. If I thought it was detrimental, then I wouldn’t do it. I want what’s best for our kids,” Collichio said.

Although this is the first year North has segregated the algebra lR classes, Collichio doesn’t anticipate much dramatic change. The main focus of the experiment is to reduce distractions, and to create an classroom environment in which students can feel more comfortable.

Another variable that is a constant in this experiment is the actual information taught in the course. All students, regardless of which class they are in, are taught the same material.

“They’re getting the same curriculum, they’re getting the same pace, the same assessments, the same teachers. There’s really no difference in what you’re getting in class,” said Collichio.
The administration team at North may have initiated this idea, but the math teachers have also been involved in this experiment.  The teachers are aware and informed of the goals and objectives for this year.

Collichio hopes to receive feedback from the algebra teachers throughout the year.

“I’m talking to a lot of people that are involved with this, especially with the teachers,” said Collichio. “They are right on the front line, they have their finger on the pulse of the class, they know if this is going to work or not. I’ve got some very good teachers involved.”

Mike Mistretta, an algebra teacher at North, has been involved with this change. This year, he has two all-boy classes and one all-girl class.

“I’ve surveyed the students to get their input on what they feel is positive or negative about the situation. Some students have responded by saying they do feel a little bit more comfortable being able to participate, and don’t feel as shy about voicing their opinion. But at the same time, I’ve also had (students) say that they don’t think it makes a difference,” Mistretta said.

As with all new decisions and changes in a school, there are always ways to improve the current systems that are in place. Collichio is aware of this; he is encouraging the teachers to be honest with him so that improvements can be made and feedback can be accounted for.

“I don’t want them to tell me what they think I want to hear. I want to get right to the bottom of it, and when they say ‘It seems to be working,’ I will ask them, ‘Why do you say that? Why do you think it’s working? Give me some evidence’,” Collichio said.

Right now, there is not much assessment data to prove that the segregated classes at North have made a significant academic impact. Collichio and the teachers are waiting for the final quarters of the year to get more results and data in terms of examination improvement.

Chuck Swierski, another algebra teacher at North, commented on his classroom situation this year, and the results he has seen so far.

“I think in my girls’ class I’m getting more participation than I ordinarily would see with the girls when they’re mixed with the boys. As far as achievement goes, it’s kind of too early to tell,” Swierski said.

In the meantime, they are looking at other types of data.

“It’s not only assessment data. It’s the disciplinary referrals that come from the class, how satisfied are the kids with the class, how satisfied are the parents, how satisfied are the teachers,” Collichio said. “It’s a multi-prong look at things, it’s not one-dimensional feedback that I want. I want a multidimensional perspective,” said Collichio.

While putting this experiment into action and talking to the counselors at North, Collichio realized that talking to the students about their experiences would be essential in making this change a success.

Josh DiLiberta, a ninth-grader in an all-boys algebra class, had an opinion of his experience so far this year.

“It has its pros and cons. I think the environment just changes instantly. At the end of the day, if they were to do it again, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. I’d be perfectly OK with it,” DiLiberta said.

Lauren Meyer, another freshman in an all-girls class, agreed that there are differences, but the changes aren’t too drastic.

“You get more done,” said Meyer.

There have not been many complaints from the parents and community with regard to the separated classes. Throughout this change and this process, North has tried to keep everything out in the open. The staff at the school is very interested in meeting the needs of the parents.

“Most parents are fine with it. That may change as the year goes on, because I always get a certain amount of people who are concerned about their teacher, about the work load, about whatever happens in there, but I don’t anticipate an issue here,” Collichio said.

Even though the gender segregated algebra classes aren’t permanent at North, Collichio’s expectations and hopes for his students remain the same.

“I want our students to do the best they can. That’s the underlying thing with everything that we do here.”

Annabeth Collis is a sophomore at Williamsville North High School.

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