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Ruling Prompts Md. District To Revise Program for Black Males

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The Prince George's County, Md., school district has revised a program designed to help young black men succeed in school after federal officials determined that it was discriminatory.

The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights began investigating the district's Black Male Achievement Initiative early last year following a complaint from a parent whose daughter was ineligible for a middle school mentoring program.

The district created the initiative in 1990 following the release of a report that documented underachievement among African-American males, who make up more than 30 percent of the district's 114,000 students.

The district's attempt to addresses that problem included mentoring programs for at-risk black males such as the one at James Madison Middle School in Upper Marlboro that prompted the complaint.

The OCR notified the district in November that it was in violation of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funds.

The district has responded to the OCR with a "statement of resolution" that lays out its "formal plan to refashion all currently all-male or all-female mentoring programs in district schools so as to make participation gender-neutral."

Marcy Canavan, the chairwoman of the county school board, said the revisions were long overdue. "Other complaints were ignored for two years," she said, referring to the issue of gender bias at James Madison.

Combining boys' and girls' mentoring programs will not harm boys, Ms. Canavan added. "We seem to forget that there are girls who need help as well."

But Zack Berry, the supervisor of the mentoring programs, disagreed. "There are examples of times when boys and girls need to come together, but this is not one of them," he said last week. "These boys need a safe haven to talk about the issues that affect them--to express their feelings."

'A Life Raft'

The issue of all-boys programs, especially for black students, has been a contentious one in recent years as several urban districts have sought to create programs especially designed for the young men often considered most at risk of failing in school.

In 1991, for example, a federal lawsuit forced the Detroit public schools to admit girls to three special schools that were originally created for African-American boys only. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)

Ms. Canavan said the mentoring programs in Prince George's County are mostly for "academic assistance." But Mr. Berry believes they serve a wider purpose.

"We are throwing a life raft to a group that is drowning," he said. "These mentors provide the students with role models."

Mr. Berry said the combined grade-point average for black males in the district had increased over the past two years, a goal that the task force had specifically set out to reach.

But Ms. Canavan was reluctant to attribute that success to the mentoring programs.

As a result of the OCR investigation, the district stopped providing funds for all single-sex mentoring programs. Programs that serve both girls and boys continue to received funding.

On a separate issue, the Prince George's County school board has increased the academic requirements for admission to its 12 magnet schools, from 1.0 to 2.0, or a C average.

Critics of the new standard worry that the increase will create an elitist system.

But Ms. Canavan dismissed those fears. "[Students] can get a C average just by showing up and doing your homework," she said.

She noted that, under the new policy, below-average students would be dismissed from a district magnet school only after two years of counseling and academic assistance.

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