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Minority Educators Ponder Separate Classes for Black Males

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Portland, Ore.--The idea of separating black male students into special classrooms or programs where they would receive extra attention is gaining currency among black educators, according to participants in a meeting here last week.

Such radical solutions will be needed, one speaker told the 17th annual conference of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, if the plight of young black males continues to worsen because of resistance to needed education reforms.

By the turn of the century, if current trends continue, up to 70 percent of such young men may be dead, in prison, addicted to drugs, or otherwise unable to head households, warned the speaker, Jawanza Kunjufu. The author of several reports on the condition of the black American male, he is president of African-American Images, a Chicago-based publishing and consulting firm.

Separate classrooms or schools for African-Americans should be a last resort to be used only if educators remain unwilling or unable to reverse the disproportionate rates at which black males fail, drop out, are suspended, and are placed in special-education classes, Mr. Kunjufu added in an interview.

"Our first desire would be to keep them in heterogeneous classrooms," he said. "But if those four areas keep going the way they are going, our feeling is we may have to do something drastic."

Model Curriculum

The conference theme, "African-American History and Life," reflected the emerging movement to more fully incorporate the culture and contributions of blacks and other racial and national groups into the curriculum.

The model efforts undertaken by this city's school system to develop a multicultural curriculum were highlighted at a recent conference on the subject in Atlanta. (See Education Week, Oct. 18, 1989.)

"We're way behind in terms of being able to incorporate the culture of any other people within the curriculum, not just African-Americans," said Patricia A. Ackerman, who is ending her term as president of NABSE. "We're not teaching what is wholly true about the culture of any group that has contributed to America."

Referring to recent studies showing that black students frequently face pressures from their peers not to succeed in school, Mr. Kunjufu argued that "African-American students wouldn't associate being smart with being white if they knew it was their ancestors that built the first civilizations."

Mr. Kunjufu's firm recently completed a new multicultural curriculum, called Self-Esteem Through Culture Leads to Academic Excellence, that is being adapted for use in the public schools of Atlanta, Chicago, and New York City.

Five Basic Problems

Strategies for educating African-American children, particularly males, need to address five persistent problems, Mr. Kunjufu said.

He identified these as: a lack of leadership in insisting that all students be held to the highest expectations; a lack of parental involvement; low student self-esteem; the use of curricula and learning styles that do not reflect the needs of African-American students; and the prevalence of peer pressure against academic achievement.

Approaches that have proved successful in addressing these problems, he and others said, include retraining teachers to hold high expectations for all students, recruiting more minority teachers, and creating mentor programs for students who have not learned how to set and achieve goals.

Many conference-goers attributed the failure of federal and state governments and school districts to implement such programs effectively to lingering racism and the unwillingness of those with power to share it.

But the black community itself also hinders effective reforms, some of NABSE's leaders said in interviews.

Civil-rights groups, they said, are among the staunchest opponents of separate classrooms or schools geared to predominantly black populations.

Ms. Ackerman, for instance, recently weathered a storm of criticism from black leaders who charged that the alternative Taylor School she helped set up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was an attempt by the local district to segregate its black students.

"I think that there is a mindset in this country that if something is predominantly or solely African-American, it's not good, it's devalued," Ms. Ackerman said. "Black people are as guilty of relying on that presumption as any other people."

"My sense is that we've lost enough kids to failure, to chemical dependency, to crime," she added. "Somebody needs to stand in the gap and do what needs to be done right now."

J. Jerome Harris, superintendent of schools in Atlanta and the new president of NABSE, exhorted participants to press for change in their home districts.

"I have to make them a little uneasy that [the successful education of black children] can be done, that it hasn't been done already, and that our membership is part of the problem," he said.

"I'm trying to get them to direct their energies toward the parts of the environment that they control," he added, "and teach them that we don't necessarily look for someone else to do it for us."

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