A Proposal for a Broad Trial of Single Sex and Co-ed Virginia Classrooms on the Woodbridge Middle School Model

by James C. SherlockThis is an expanded version of an article originally published on Dec. 16 of this year.  To avoid confusion, the original has been removed.This update contains important information about the multi-year experience of Woodbridge Middle School in Prince William County with the approaches recommended here for broader testing in Virginia.See the video below.

It also contains Australian results.  

Both are based on reader tips. A tip of the hat to Abigail Norfleet James, Ph.D. for the Woodbridge Middle tip and the commenter with the pen name Nancy for the Australian information.

This is part 2 of a series on the learning deficits in boys relative to girls in Virginia public schools that are measured by the SOLs every year.

Part one, Boys Left Behind Academically – Yet Another Crisis in Virginia Schools, defined a problem. This essay offers a potential solution.

Everyone talks about school choice. Everyone wants better schools.

But as a nation we have gone into our two corners relative to public policy.

  • Parents — and conservatives — want choice;
  • Teachers unions — and thus progressives — do not want the type of choice most commonly offered, which is generally something other than the neighborhood school;
  • By school choice, both sides generally mean choice external to the neighborhood school — magnet schools, charters, single-sex academies, etc. And that’s the rub.

I offer here a suggestion for a wide and deep trial in Virginia of parental choice of single-sex classrooms internal to the neighborhood school. Such an experiment is not unprecedented.

It has been in place for more than a dozen years in Woodbridge Middle School in Prince William County, as featured in the attached video. Watch it for the observations of the teachers and the kids.

A similar program has been tried in New York City.

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) of the Institute for Educational Sciences (IES) within the U.S. Department of Education is the gold standard for finding scientific evidence of the efficacy of educational interventions.

There is no indication that such a school format has been subjected to a trial that meets WWC standards.

I think that, with well-documented and increasing problems of learning, attendance and behavior in many Virginia public schools, the time is right to create a broad, scientifically designed trial of parental choice for single-sex classrooms here.

The goals are to observe, improve and report on single sex classroom:

  • learning by boys;
  • learning by girls;
  • behavior of boys;
  • the learning environment;
  • attendance, with improved parental valuation of schools that give them choices for their kids; and
  • school order and safety.

This recommendation is meant to bring parents and teachers, conservatives and liberals together by appealing to the interests of all sides in improving educational quality.

It is designed to help strengthen learning and improve the climate of neighborhood schools, while providing parental choice within those schools.

Christopher Brueningsen, an educator with 30 years’ experience and currently the head of The Kiski School, an all-boys boarding school near Pittsburgh, wrote a thought-provoking article in USA Today that detailed the problems boys face in schools. One of them was:

The structure and climate in our schools are equally important influencers when it comes to scholastic success for young men.

He offered, as we saw in part one, that boys learn differently from girls, and suggested lessons be tailored with that in mind.

We know that boys benefit from introducing lessons through dramatic points of entry that grab their attention.

We know that boys are kinesthetic learners who benefit from hands-on activities where they learn by touch, exploration and manipulation.

He observed from his experience that:

In all-boys schools and classrooms, where teachers are focused on the unique social, emotional and learning needs of boys, young men are thriving. [Emphasis added.]

That is a single observation, not a study, as are the Woodbridge and NYC references, but intriguing nonetheless.

Australian results show that both girls and boys have thrived there in single-sex education. A study at the link showed that 8% of co-ed students achieve 40+ (highest group) study scores (SOL parallel), rising to 14% in boys’ schools and 17% in girls’ schools.

Many parents of means in the U.S. choose single-sex schools for their kids and have for generations.

Woodbridge Middle School Comparative Statistics.  The student body at Woodbridge Middle last year was 16% white, 23% Black, 42% Hispanic, 12% Asian and 7% mixed races.  That racial mix is very rare in Virginia schools, which overall are 45% White, 22% Black, 19% Hispanic, 7.5% Asian and 6.7% mixed race.

The SOL results were impossible to compare, because of the unique racial mix and since Middle School assessments are not disaggregated at the state level.  But at Woodbridge Middle, male writing scores were better than female scores.  The reverse was true in reading scores.  Math scores were the same for each sex.

At Woodbridge Middle, 59% of students were economically disadvantaged, the same as Prince William County Public Schools (PWCPS) as a whole, but higher than the state average (56%), Virginia Beach (54%) and Loudoun (24%).  

So Woodbridge Middle students are on average poorer than those benchmarks.

Chronic absenteeism was 16.1%, well below the PWCPS average of 20%.  It was also below the state average of 19.5%, Loudoun’s 18.8% and Virginia Beach’s 17.4%.

Kids like going to school at Woodbridge Middle and their parents make efforts to get them there above those of the parents of the comparison groups.

Higher SOL scores and lower absenteeism, especially among poor and minority students, will be goals of the trial.

A Concept for Assessment. I suggest the Virginia DOE model Woodbridge Middle’s same-gender-program when organizing a test program, providing also a co-ed option in each grade of each school participating.

I suggest seeking volunteer school divisions and schools across the state.

That can form the basis for a major study of that intervention’s effects on improving the performance of boys and girls using only the classroom, not the single-sex academies that California tried years ago or that Mr. Brueningsen heads.

Parents in participating schools would choose the option for their children.

Nothing else inside schools offering a single-sex classroom option needs to change. School division dollar costs should approach zero.

Single-sex classrooms enable tailored instruction in reading and writing, and the pacing of other subjects that depend on reading and writing. See again the video for examples.

Such a choice will give parents a role, and thus ownership, in their child’s education at school, changing by their choice their valuation of attendance.

The system for the trial could look something like this on the Woodbridge Middle School model:

  • School divisions would opt for or against an internal school choice option;
  • School divisions would choose both which of their schools and at what grade to begin offering the option. To improve language arts, it seems the earlier the better;
  • Each school in each division choosing to do so would offer all-male, all-female and co-ed classrooms to the degree parents choose. Parents of transgender students of course would have the same choices;
  • In each school, if parents choose an option that will not fill at least one class, the offer would be withdrawn. If the choices do not yield multiple full classes, a blind lottery like the lotteries in oversubscribed charter schools could be used to fill the available classrooms and create waiting lists;
  • In every case at least one co-ed class would be offered in each grade to avoid forcing students into a single sex class arrangement parents do not want for them and to serve as a control group for studying the results. Note here that the NYC effort showed that parents of struggling students were more likely to choose single-gender education, so the trial would have to account for student improvements, not just gross SOL scores;
  • Nothing else would be changed. Bathrooms, clubs, sports, buses, cafeterias, etc. would operate as now.

School A could, as parents choose, have two all-male classrooms, one all-female classroom and three co-ed classrooms in grade 2, for example.

School B might have some other mix, again as parents choose.

Schools that are too small to accommodate these options would not participate in the trial.

This is recommended as a statewide trial funded by VDOE with federal and non-profit grants.

Roles. I foresee the following roles:


  • Seek a combination of federal and/or non-profit grants and Virginia budget appropriations to fund the trial;
  • Engage a professional marketing company. Marketers will need to ensure all parents understand: (1) the choices they can make; (2) the issues that the proposed options are trying to address and thus their potential value; and (3) that the options are offered to improve the learning environments and educational outcomes;
  • Hire a contractor to design and conduct  a statewide trial and study designed to meet What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) standards, reporting the academic, behavioral and attendance results of single-sex classrooms in co-ed schools;
  • Leverage the experience of Woodbridge Middle School;
  • Seek WWC approval of the test design;
  • Seek volunteer school divisions across the state;
  • Collect data, apparently for the first time nationally at scale, on the effects of single-sex classrooms on the educational system;
  • Collect and share best practices from early results;
  • Conduct the trial for three years and report.

Volunteer school divisions:

  • Seek principals of schools who want to participate; and
  • advertise the new options to parents of those schools with VDOE support.

School principals:

  • Conduct parental educational events and surveys;
  • Enable and encourage teachers in single-sex classrooms to close educational gaps at the pace and with pedagogy tailored to single-gender classes and learning styles;
  • Enable and encourage teachers and support staff, including counselors, psychologists and social workers, to more readily use WWC-certified proven strategies to improve the classroom behavior of boys;
  • Leverage parental and student buy-in to improve attendance.

Federal funding.

Federal programs that may provide funding support to this trial are operated by the Department of Education Office of Elementary & Secondary Education’s Office of School Support and Accountability (SSA).

Such funding may be sought under the following Titles of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as reauthorized (ESEA):

  • Title IV 21st Century Schools
    Subpart 1—Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants. This may prove the primary source of funding with additional justification for funding from Title I and Title II funds;
  • Title I Improving The Academic Achievement of The Disadvantaged
    Sec. 1114. [20 U.S.C. 6314] Schoolwide Programs;
  • Title II: Preparing, Training, And Recruiting High-Quality Teachers, Principals, Or Other School Leaders.


Test scores are down along with attendance in most areas of the state.

A single-sex classroom trial, based on results at Woodbridge Middle and at other schools in this country and internationally, is potentially broadly helpful to both academic achievement and attendance.

This system offers the potential to improve both, but it needs a much broader scientifically designed trial in order for Virginia and other states to commit to it.

Choice – by school divisions, school principals and parents – is the key.

Federal funding is potentially available.

This design offered for the trial approach structured to appeal to the broadest possible swath of teachers and parents and, though legislation may not be needed, both parties in the General Assembly.

I recommend its initiation in the Fall of 2024.

Updated at 14:07 on Dec. 19 to add the section on Woodbridge Middle School Comparative Statistics.

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5 responses to “A Proposal for a Broad Trial of Single Sex and Co-ed Virginia Classrooms on the Woodbridge Middle School Model”

  1. vicnicholls Avatar

    Capt another one of your excellent articles. Thanks.

  2. So the middle school students have some single sex classes and then some mixed sex classes such as language or electives? Also, is Woodbridge Middle School feed to an AP high school or an IB high school?

    What is amazing is that male and female students seem to be able to function at a very high level together at STEM magnet schools? Why is the male/female gap the smallest for Asian students and the biggest for black students?

    In looking up the middle school on niche, it is 64% free lunch, 41% Hispanic, 23% black, 17% white, and 11% Asian.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    About 20 to 25 years ago Prince William experimented with this in one of the high schools in Woodbridge. 9th grade only. I knew one of the teachers who participated in this experiment. She had glowing remarks and could prove success with significant SOL score performance. It only lasted a year though. I can’t remember why it did not take root.

    Fork Union is worth a serious look for more information on this matter. All male school. Highly structured. They use the gold standard One Subject Plan.

  4. Bob X from Texas Avatar
    Bob X from Texas

    Loyola and Calvert Hall all boys high schools spend less money per pupil than other high schools in the Baltimore area yet almost every student is college bound. Maybe Virginia should follow their successful teaching methods.

  5. Not Today Avatar

    Editing was an option for you. In the face of convincing arguments of your own folly, you dirty deleted. Enjoy your echo chamber.

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