Several Wichita middle schools try single-sex lunches

Middle school lunchrooms are pretty much your average hormone-itorium. Boys trying to impress girls. Girls trying to impress boys. Both groups testing their boundaries and voices, neither eating much lunch.

"Remember in 'Bambi' when Thumper says they're twitterpated?" said Jennifer Sinclair, principal at Truesdell Middle School.

"That's what it is. They're twitterpated."

Now a few Wichita schools are trying a new method for decreasing the drama as well as the discipline problems: They're separating girls and boys at lunchtime.

Reasons for single-sex lunches vary. Sinclair said she got tired of battling inappropriate smooching and boy-girl drama; others say they noticed whole lunches being thrown away because students spent more time socializing than eating.

But principals who have instituted girls- and boys-only lunches say they've noticed similar results: Kids are getting into trouble less, eating more and being more active during lunch recess.

"We've seen a huge improvement," said Michael Archibeque, principal at Pleasant Valley Middle School, which instituted single-sex lunches last fall.

"Our behavior problems, verbal altercations, fights — everything has dropped dramatically this year."

At Pleasant Valley, near 29th North and Amidon, boys eat lunch while girls go outside for recess; then the groups switch. The routine is similar at Truesdell, near Pawnee and Seneca, and at Mead, in southeast Wichita.

Archibeque said his initial reason for separating the sexes had nothing to do with discipline or public displays of affection. He was tired of seeing so much wasted food.

"It seemed like 80 percent of our students were throwing away whole lunches. Then they'd be hungry" later, he said. "I was just trying to get them to eat."

After hearing about separate lunches at other schools, his staff decided to give it a try. Almost immediately, students — especially girls — started eating more at lunch, he said. Then they noticed other changes.

"Last year at this point we had over 15 expulsions. Several started at lunch," the principal said. "This year we've had two."

Lunch isn't the only reason, Archibeque said. Pleasant Valley and other schools have instituted several changes aimed at reducing discipline problems. But losing the co-ed cafeteria hasn't hurt.

"Any unstructured time is a challenge," he said. "You have lots of verbal altercations that can escalate, and part of that is showing off in front of others."

Single-sex education in classrooms or entire schools — sometimes everywhere but the lunchroom — has been common practice in private schools for generations. But more public schools are exploring the tactic.

Ten years ago, 11 public schools in the country offered single-sex classes, says Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education. This year, there were more than 500.

"What boys need is different from what girls need," said Sax, a psychologist and author of several books.

Interestingly, Sax does not support sex-segregated lunches, which he calls "the most important period of the day in terms of negotiating relationships and... learning social skills."

"I'm always just a little disappointed" in schools that adopt single-sex lunches, he said.

"That's usually just a discipline measure and doesn't have a lot to do with how kids learn. The potential (of single-sex education) is so much greater in the content areas."

Around the lunch table at Truesdell on Friday, eighth-grader Rainah Vernon said she didn't like the all-girls lunchroom.

"It was more fun with boys," she said.

Linda Tran and Hannah Matsui-Yandell agreed but said they know why leaders made the switch.

"PDA," —public display of affection — Tran said, smiling.

Over plates of chili and tater tots in their separate lunchroom, some Truesdell boys also bemoaned the move away from co-ed lunches.

Back in sixth grade, said Andrew Thach, "If you needed to tell a girl something important, like relate a message, you could do it" at lunch. "Now we just see them in class or the hallway, and you can't really talk."

Sinclair, the Truesdell principal, said some students — particularly eighth-graders, who started middle school with co-ed lunch — protested the change. Parents' reaction also varied.

"Some were like, 'Great idea. I love it.' Others were like, 'This is dumb. Why are you doing it?' " she said.

Teachers pointed to research showing the benefits of single-sex education. Although most of it relates to classroom situations, they predicted separating boys and girls would have benefits during lunch and recess as well.

Now many students like the separate lunches, Sinclair said. When teachers offered co-ed lunch as a reward for a recent fundraiser, "They weren't interested," she said.

"It was hard at first, but you know, kids are funny," she said. "I think they really, down deep in their little hearts, are grateful for limits, for boundaries and parameters. They might fuss a little bit, but in the end, they like it."