Detroit Admits Female Students
DETROIT--Faced with a federal court order, the Detroit Board of Education last week agreed to admit girls to three new schools that had been designed to meet the special needs of the city's African-American boys.
School-board members vowed, however, to continue a legal battle to win the chance to experiment with using all-male schools they say would help rescue a generation of boys from the risks of impoverished, inner-city neighborhoods.
"There is a demonstrated commitment from the community for us to go as far as we need to go to make sure male academies are an option," said Lawrence C. Patrick Jr., president of the school board, during an emotional meeting Aug. 27 at which an overflow audience of parents and community leaders urged the board to press its case to establish the all-male schools.
The three schools--Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Paul Robeson academies--opened a day late on Aug. 28, with the 559 male students and one female student who originally were accepted, as well as two girls who had been on a waiting list. Other girls will have at least a week to apply for 136 new slots.
The school board's decision to continue fighting a suit that challenged the all-male schools, filed on behalf of a Detroit mother with three daughters, promises to intensify the national debate over the idea of tailoring special classrooms or schools to address the needs of black and other minority males.
"We in the African-American community are quite distressed and quite desperate to turn around a generation of African-American children," said Spencer H. Holland, director of the Center for Educating African-American Males at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Mr. Holland is an originator of the concept of separate classes for minority boys taught by a man who can serve as a role model. His ideas are being tested in several all-male classrooms for black students in two Baltimore elementary schools. (See Education Week , Feb. 13, 1991.)
In the past year, several urban school districts, including Milwaukee, New York City, and Detroit, have carried the concept a step further by considering entire schools for males, typically with an African-centered curriculum.
Questions about the legality of excluding girls from such schools, however, have prompted the Milwaukee school district to admit female students to its first African-American immersion school, which will open this month.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund recently issued a statement strongly opposing separate schools for African-American males.
"We propose that public school systems be required to respond to the needs of African-American male students without resorting to segregation," the statement reads.
And last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said he opposed separate classrooms or schools for African-American males.
"As laudable as the attempt to deal with life as it really is today in Detroit and other urban areas for young black men [is], we've got to remember the history of the last 30 years and what Brown v. Board of Education was about," the Secretary said.
At the Woodward Elementary School here last week, Clifford Watson, the principal, supervised the first day of school for the 500 students in Woodward's regular classrooms, while the nearly 250 boys scheduled to attend the Malcolm X Academy housed at the school remained home until the board of education decided its fate.
Two of the three academies will be housed this year in schools that also serve other students, while the third will be self-contained.
"Early intervention is the key," said Mr. Watson, who first proposed to the school board a "male developmental academy" at his school.
The board voted in February to establish the three male academies, designed to include an enriched educational setting, an African-centered curriculum, a "rites of passage" program to emphasize male responsibility, the use of mentors, a Saturday program, school uniforms, and special counseling.
To at least a few parents with daughters in the Detroit school system, these features sounded attractive. At least one girl was admitted, apparently by mistake, along with the 559 boys for the first year.
A lawsuit was filed Aug. 5 on behalf of two women who said they wanted to enroll their daughters in the male academies. One plaintiff later dropped out of the lawsuit, citing harassment from the community. The other plaintiff, who has three daughters in the Detroit schools, has remained anonymous.
The suit was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Now Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City, which is not connected with the National Organization for Women.
The suit argued that the academies violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the laws, the Title IX law forbidding sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, and several provisions of Michigan law.
On Aug. 15, U.S. District Judge George E. Woods issued a preliminary injunction against the school board, ruling that the academies violated federal and state law because they denied girls an equal education.
Stating that he agreed that young black males in Detroit are "an endangered species," the judge added that "while this court views the purpose for which the male academies came into being an important one, the objectives, no matter how compelling, cannot override the rights of females to equal opportunities."
Grassroots support for the male academies has been strong in this city, and a backlash against the judge's order and the groups that supported the suit has gown. Some 300 protesters picketed the federal courthouse here following the ruling.
"The real question is, are urban centers going to be self-determining, or are we going to have the courts come in and tell us what is best?" said Bernard Parker, a Wayne County commissioner and a leader of a community group backing the academies.
Girls Urged To Wait
The school beard unanimously approved last week a plan that gave girls until Sept. 4 to apply for the 136 new slots. Those selected for the schools, now to be called African Centered Academies, will enter by Sept. 9, said Deborah M. McGriff, general superintendent of the Detroit schools.
Community activists urged parents to keep their daughters out of the African Centered Academies so that the all-male experiment might be left largely intact. Parents were urged to wait for the school system to open a similar academy designed to meet the needs of urban girls, which the board of education has voted to do by next year.
'We are hoping the community will understand what we are trying to do and send their daughters to other schools," said Keith O'Donald, a printer who was distributing leaflets in support of the male academies outside the board of education's headquarters. "We need to give these brothers some specialized attention."
The legal question may take months to resolve. School-district officials indicated last week they would not appeal Judge Woods's injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, but instead would seek a full trial in district court on the case's merits. Judge Woods has set a schedule that calls for a trial to begin next February.
Howard Simon, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Michigan, said such a course would waste valuable public funds that could be better used to improve educational program.
'There is very little likelihood that they would prevail," he predicted.
Vol. 11, Issue 01, Pages 1, 24-25Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Under Court Order, Girls Admitted To Schools for Black Boys in Detroit