Charter school focuses on each gender

Jennifer Beatty, an 8th-grade teacher at the Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School, works with a student during a study of Maya Angelou’s book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

— Photo by Tribune Chief Photographer Abdul R. Sulayman.

When Alphonso Evans arrived as Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School’s principal in 2010, teaching strategies used in the classrooms were informed by an awareness of differences in how boys and girls learn.

The charter school has taken the single gender education program to a higher level, regularly budgeting money for teachers to attend a five-day training session at The Gurian Institute in Colorado every summer.

A greater awareness of brain function in boys and girls is proving advantageous, helping teachers do a better job at connecting with their students. Teachers are better able to keep their charges focused on tasks and tailor instruction to the learning style of individual students.

School staff say the program is helpful to both genders, and boys especially. Aileen Burr, director of the Southwest Leadership Academy for grades five to eight, has been certified as a master trainer by the Gurian Institute, which develops best practices and teaching philosophies based on an understanding of the similarities and differences in brain functions of boys and girls.

Burr said she felt more effective as an educator when she gained a better understanding of gender differences in learning.

“It changes everything. I always believed every child is an individual and it was my job as a teacher and try to reach them and help them do their best and succeed,” she said. “You have to see it through that gender lens. When you see the classroom environment through that gender lens, you don’t see boys off task but looking for structure, looking for opportunities for movement because that’s how boys’ brains are wired.”

All too often, boys hear: “Sit down, be quiet and do what you’re told to do,” Evans said. “We’re teaching as if we’re teaching an entire class of female students and that’s just not the case.

“We feel it’s critical that our teachers are culturally aware of the children they teach,” Evans continued. “You can’t teach Chinatown and not be aware of their culture. But in so many cases, it’s acceptable for teachers and administrators to not be accountable to the culture of the students they teach and that’s something I put at the forefront as an administrator. We need to embrace the culture of the children we are teaching.”

Natasha McCoy, of Southwest Philadelphia, said her daughter Angrea Auld, flourished under the gender-focused instruction at Southwest Leadership from fourth grade through eighth grade. She said there were fewer distractions in all-girls’ classes and saw improvements in her grades and behavior.

“She was more comfortable with doing stuff because when you’re with the opposite sex you get shy. She wanted to say something, not the right answer she might get shy and not want to answer,” McCoy said. Her daughter now attends West Philadelphia High School Promise Academy.

Teachers return from Colorado trained to recognize normal class behavior in both genders but specifically boys who are more prone to become fidgety and shorter attention spans.

Many teachers are caught off guard when they are assigned to teach a classroom of all boys or all girls. But staff and parents say the attention to detail is paying off.

A majority of boys are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities for displaying behavior that is often viewed as disruptive but typical for boys, such as tapping their feet or pencil. “It’s common sense,” explained Evans, who has worked in schools run by the local school districts and privately run school management companies for 15 years.

“Part of that is just being a boy. It’s not entirely because you have learning disabilities,” Evans said.

By focusing on the differences on how the learning process for boys differs from girls, school staff are encouraged to serve as mentors, create and foster a more supportive environment.

“You can’t show up in September and again in November. It has to be a constant, consistent direction in their life,” Evans said. “We make a difference in their lives and many of them are doing well because they know there’s an additional support system in their life. I definitely saw a change in their confidence level.

Contact staff writer

Wilford Shamlin III

at (215) 893-5742

or wshamlin@phillytrib.com

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