I have been and still remain a firm believer in the benefits of single-sex education during the critical middle school years. My experience at an all-boys summer camp, combined with my own research about the benefits of single-sex education, were largely what compelled me to create an all-boys middle-school opportunity in the Asheville area. Founded as an all-boys school in 2009, the French Broad River Academy now also serves middle-school girls with the opening of our girls school in 2015. The boys and girls programs are located on separate campuses located along the banks of the French Broad River, with the girls school in the River Arts District school and the boys school in Woodfin.
Can coed middle school programs produce successful outcomes? The answer is “yes” of course. I successfully taught both boys and girls in a coed classroom for years as a Spanish teacher and led coed trips on the French Broad and to Costa Rica. However, I would argue that there is something unique and special about the classroom and school culture that can be created in a single-sex environment. For instance, I recently observed an all-girls math classroom where classmates eagerly researched and designed aeronautical features to improve the trajectory of their rockets for an upcoming launch at the end of the year. I also witnessed eighth-grade boys trying to “out conjugate” each other during a Spanish review activity as they prepared for their Spanish placement exam.
In each scenario, the students were focused on the objective of the class, the content of the curriculum, their learning, and their outcomes instead of stressing over whether a classmate might ridicule their response to a teacher’s question. Without the dynamic of “coed competition,” student academic performance improves, confidence and self-esteem rises, and students are prepared with the character and integrity for success in high school, college, and the competitive world beyond.
Undoubtedly, the growth and success of FBRA is largely due to tailoring its program to the specific needs of boys and girls. However, as we grow and reflect on how to improve the FBRA experience, we have discovered that there are some amazing opportunities for coed interaction within our programming.
I joined the eighth-grade classes from the boys and girls schools on a recent trip to Purchase Knob in Smoky Mountains National Park to see for myself. Students from both schools were divided into groups and after some initial introductions and activities, the boys and girls rode together and discussed how their year was going, where they would be attending high school in the fall, and so forth. Once we arrived at the site, students enjoyed a picnic lunch together with breathtaking views of the Smokies in every direction.
The staff at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center facilitated an amazing experiential lesson for the group that involved locating and examining tardigrades (microscopic invertebrates-click link for more) under a microscope as well as conducting a field study of salamanders.
Students collaborated on the collection of specimens, analysis of data, and reporting of findings. It was real science in action, but even more impressive was the experiment of mixing our students together. The eighth graders from both schools demonstrated outstanding character and integrity in a truly unique setting. It was evident to me that our shared culture allowed us to succeed in this type of setting where many other school groups fall short in terms of the impression made on the outside facilitator.
Each spring our sixth graders do a coed canoe trip This allows the students and staff to build relationships based on unique shared experiences in the outdoors. Sadly, this is an increasingly rare practice that is being supplanted by interactions via social media platforms like Snapchat. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, tandem (two-person) canoeing creates a unique communication dynamic where there are real, tangible consequences if communication and teamwork fails. The natural need and structure that a whitewater canoeing trip provides creates the ideal context for young adolescents to interact in a positive and healthy way.
Let me be clear, FBRA was founded as a single-sex middle school program and will continue to be that. However, as opportunities for coed interaction present themselves in a variety of formats, we will continue to evaluate them based on the following question:
“Are we building character and integrity for a lifetime of learning and service in a physically and emotionally safe environment?”
If the answer is yes, you can expect to see more “coed crossover” in the coming years!