young female student looking at paints of many colors

“We want to provide equitable resources for both boys and girls, remove barriers to learning and smash stereotypes to pieces,” replies head of school Lori Bachman when I ask her why her Albuquerque public school Coral Community Charter School has single gender classrooms.

Lori has a Master’s degree in educational leadership, 13 years of experience teaching and 15 years as an educational leader at the school, district and state levels including as Chief of Staff for former PED Secretary Dr. Veronica Garcia. Lori also spent 3 years as Director of NM Voices for Children.

When I ask her to tell me more about Coral’s model she gives me a reason for it that I don’t expect. To keep kids from dropping out. Coral serves grades from PreK-5; can dropping out even be addressed at that age? In fact, in his 2013 study on identifying potential dropouts in Montgomery County Public Schools, Superintendent Joshua Starr was able to identify dropout indicators as far back as 1st grade.

Lori adds that, based on studies such as one from the Women’s Foundation of Colorado and data from places such as the National Center for Education Studies, boys and girls disengage and drop out for different reasons.

She says for girls “schools tend to overlook destructive behaviors that are not typically obvious, resulting in missed opportunities [for girls] to develop and repair meaningful relationships.” And so “girls report a top reason for dropping out is the absence of a sense of community.” For boys “negative early experiences” with discipline for behavior that research shows is “actually an attempt to stay alert and engaged,” such as moving around, can set the stage for dropping out later. Lori says we “need to pay attention to these historically ineffective reactions and avoid them at all costs.”

To explain other ways we can keep each gender engaged, Lori talks about pairing biology with instructional approach. “For girls, there is a reliance on parvocellular cells which connect color variety and other sensory activity to upper brain functioning,” meaning “word connections tend to be made with color and other sensory information. As instructors we can provide opportunities for girls to connect sensory details in order to explain thought processes.”

“Boys rely more on magnocellular cells, which make spatial activity and graphic clues quickly accessible. This means it’s more likely boys will make word connections with pictures and moving objects. We can support their learning by allowing them to first draw the details of a story and then draft a written response.”

On hearing about how boy and girls process information differently I am reminded of a story former Public Education Commissioner Carmie Toulouse tells. She was visiting Coral to talk to the kids about her backgrounds in archaeology and education. While giving identical presentations to each gender, she says, the boys and girls asked her decidedly different questions. The boys wanted to know had she ever dug up a skeleton. The girls wanted to know how to run and get elected to office.

Abby Lewis represents Coral Community Charter School in her education law practice.