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For the first time, high schools in Salt Lake City School District are teaching physical education to boys and girls together.

The coeducational classes are new to high school teachers, but most students had integrated PE at their middle schools.The integration effort started four years ago, when this year's incoming high-school class still was in elementary school.

Now the district's PE curriculum is fully coeducational and in compliance with Title IX, the federal law barring gender and racial discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.

District officials say they integrated the curriculum gradually to minimize discomfort of students and parents.

"There's not as much community support for integrated PE," said Mary Petersen, gender-desegregation specialist with the state Office of Education. "Some parents are a little slower in coming to this - so the students are, and consequently the schools are."

Eventually, every school in the state will offer coeducational PE, Petersen said. Districts can keep girls and boys separate but equal in after-school athletics such as football and volleyball.

Most schools are simply integrating their class rolls, but segregating boys and girls once they get on the field, Petersen said.

That is not allowable, but discrimination on the basis of skill is, she said. Stronger athletes can be grouped together, and those groups will not necessarily fall along gender lines.

"We want selection based on skill," she said. "Schools shouldn't just toss out the ball and let the kids self-select, because if they can self-select on the basis of sex, they will."

Coeducational PE can raise skill levels of girls and boys, said CeCie Scharman, the Hillside Middle School teacher who helped coordinate Salt Lake School District's Title IX plan.

"They seem to want to do better," she said. "It gives them an opportunity to have a social situation together, and it has been really fun watching them help each other."

East High PE teacher JoAnn Orr said she worried at first about putting girls and boys in the same class, but "they have handled it real well."

The girls and boys are doing more than improving their athletic abilities, she said. They are learning to interact with one another.

"They can work together in a different way now," she said. "They are developing some kindness, courtesy and respect toward each other."