Pity the poor school officials in Greene County, Ga. When they suggested last month that they wanted to become the first school district in the nation to segregate all public schools according to gender, you would have thought they'd announced their intent to revive racial segregation.

It was, Superintendent Shawn McCollough admitted, a move born of desperation. Students in the impoverished district consistently post poor test scores. Teachers are unable to combat soaring dropout and teen pregnancy rates.

"At the rate we're moving, we're never going to catch up," McCollough told parents last month. "If we're going to take some steps, let's take some big steps."

Critics say it's a step backward; an infringement on students' right of free expression. Repressive. Sexist, illegal under equal opportunity laws, even. "Outmoded" was the critics' kindest description. I think it's an idea worth trying. After all, it has been good enough for princes and princesses for centuries. Its supporters suggest that girls pay more attention and participate in classroom discussions more often in single-gender settings. The uniforms even out the fashion field. Students all can dress well at a reasonable cost.

Boys, who now lag academically behind girls after they reach middle school - and who don't as often attend college - benefit from attendance at single-gender schools. They also show off less in class.

So why does the idea of adopting single-gender schools evoke the kind of shocked reaction that it did in Georgia?

Some critics say it's not democratic; un-American, even. Others doubt that educational opportunities would be equal. I'm optimistic that parents would not put up with such inequality. And there's really nothing democratic about student culture now. The student social caste system that has been entrenched in public schools for as long as most of us can recall is an obstacle to education. Ask any teacher if you doubt me.

I'm not naive enough to think that adopting single-gender schools and uniforms would instantly turn public schools into citadels of enlightenment. But eliminating the best-dressed quest and school-time dating game would benefit many students. To many, it might even be a relief.

I agree with beleaguered Superintendent McCullough in Georgia; it's time for a bold move. This one is proven. Why not give it a try?

Theresa Novak is the city editor at the Corvallis Gazette-Times.