2 Schools Aimed For Black Males Set in Milwaukee

By Millicent Lawton — October 10, 1990 8 min read

Prompting critics to raise a host of educational, moral, and legal questions, the Milwaukee school board has voted to create two schools to cater to the academic and social needs of black male children.

Officials in Milwaukee and elsewhere say the schools, which are scheduled to open next fall, will be the first of their kind in the nation.

The African-American immersion schools--one will be an elementary school, the other a middle school--will offer a curriculum emphasizing African-American studies, officials said.

The schools, which will accept girls and youngsters from all races, will also seek to foster self-esteem and responsibility among the students by offering school-time counseling, possibly an extended school day, and discussion of such topics as male sexuality and entrepreneurship, officials explained.

In addition, they said, the schools, which district officials have compared to existing city schools that specialize in the teaching of a foreign language, will likely have a higher proportion of black teachers than does a typical Milwaukee school.

Backers of the program say such a radical step is necessary to try to stem the devastating cycle of academic underachievement that often presages the disproportionate number of black men who end up unemployed, jailed, or murdered. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

But the proposal is not without controversy, and it has prompted critics in both the black and white communities in Milwaukee and elsewhere to speak out.

The proposal’s opponents, including a member of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Washington, say the intent of the plan--despite officials’ assertions that enrollment will be open to all students--is illegal because it discriminates on the basis of race and gender.

The Statistics’ Story

The Milwaukee school board voted 5 to 3 late last month to adopt the immersion-school plan, which had been recommended last spring by a 29-member task force of school officials, citizens, and students.

A litany of grim statistics accompanied the report and continues to lace the comments of the plan’s supporters:

Black males have the highest dropout and course-failure rates in the city.

While they make up 27.6 percent of all students in the district, black males represented 50 percent of all students suspended during the 1989-90 school year. Between 1978 and 1985, they accounted for 94.4 percent of all students expelled.

Just 2 percent of black boys have either an A or B grade-point average, and only 17 percent have at least a C average.

“We just felt that the only way to tackle a problem of this severity was with a more radical solution than had been proposed before,” Superintendent of Schools Robert S. Peterkin said in an interview.

“What we’re attempting to do here,” he said, “is to meet a very critical problem that society doesn’t seem to be able [to meet] without fumbling through a lot of excuses.”

Noting that community interest in the idea is high, Kenneth Holt, a middle-school principal and co-chairman of the task force, said, “The city wants it.”

‘The Method Is Wrong’

Others in Milwaukee do not agree that the schools should be created.

Doris Stacy, an 18-year veteran of the school board who voted against the plan, said segregating or isolating students is “a very dangerous idea.”

“To institutionalize white or black schools in 1990 would be disappointing,” she said.

While agreeing with the goal of the program, she said, “The method is wrong.”

Ms. Stacy said she wonders, for instance, whether the board would do just as well to take steps to improve teaching in the district.

The president of the Milwaukee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has also voiced his concern.

“I’m not condemning it,” Felmers Chaney said, adding that he was not yet familiar with the details of the plan. “But I have a problem when you start separating people. I think all people ought to learn together.”

Depending on the size of the schools that volunteer to take part, 1,000 to 3,000 children in the 98,000-student district will likely be enrolled in the program, said David C. Begel, a spokesman for the district.

Mr. Peterkin said that schools will have to volunteer to participate in the program but that he has already had inquiries from principals and expects no problem obtaining schools. The volunteers must come from among the district’s 17 schools that were left more than 90 percent black in the wake of a desegregation-related court order in the late 1970’s, officials said.

Details To Be Worked Out

While many details about the curriculum and the schools’ operation have yet to be worked out, Mr. Peterkin said the curriculum will address the contributions and accomplishments of Africans and African-Americans to history.

Several other practices will also set them apart from other schools, Mr. Holt said.

First, one hour or more each day will be devoted to counseling students. The adult-student exchange will center on everyday social issues, such as sexual responsibility, in order to offer guidance and foster emotional development, Mr. Holt said.

Second, officials will look into extending the school day by at least an hour to provide children the adult supervision over homework that they may lack at home.

Third, Saturday classes may become a part of the program, Mr. Holt said. Such sessions would focus on the “psychosocial development” of the child and examine the “rites of passage” that can mark a young black male’s life.

Teachers, who will have the option of staying in the program or being transferred to another school, will receive special training in, among other issues, cultural sensitivity, officials said.

Mr. Peterkin said the district will study the possibility of requesting school-board permission to have an increased presence of black teachers as role models for the students. The district may also consider having more black male teachers than would be typical, said Joyce Mallory, a school-board member who supports the proposal.

Mr. Begel, the spokesman for the district, said “no dollar figure” has been calculated on the plan’s cost.

He noted, however, that there may well be as-yet-undetermined costs associated with curriculum development, teacher training, textbooks, or extended school hours.

Educational Merits Questioned

The educational merits of a program like Milwaukee’s remain unclear, according to experts.

Jomills H. Braddock 2nd, director of the center for research on effective schooling for disadvantaged students at Johns Hopkins University, said he had a “mixed reaction” to the program.

“Segregation of any sort has long-term drawbacks,” he said, because children who experience racial isolation in their early years are faced with “restricted” opportunities and tend to segregate themselves later in choosing a home or workplace.

However, Mr. Braddock said, “I think there are a number of potential benefits.”

A multicultural curriculum “that reflects and includes the experiences and contributions of African-Americans,” he said, “will make the learning experience more interesting and more engaging.”

Spencer H. Holland, director of the Center for Educating African-American Males at Morgan State University in Baltimore, was more adamant in his support for the Milwaukee proposal.

“This experiment in Milwaukee must take place,” he said. The black community must take the lead now, he said, because traditional methods have failed, and “the American mainstream community does not know what the problem is.”

While the Milwaukee program is apparently the first to focus the efforts of an entire school on a program for black boys, at least one other school has tried a similar program on a smaller scale.

In 1987, in Dade County, Fla., Pine Villa Elementary School instituted a program called “At Risk All Male Classes.”

Under the voluntary program, Clarence Jones, principal of Pine Villa Elementary, said, two all-male classes were created. One, for kindergartners, was taught by a black male teacher; the other, for 1st graders was taught by a white male teacher.

Mr. Jones said that after the program’s first year of operation he was told by a district official to seek permission from federal civil-rights officials to continue the class in the fall of 1988.

The U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights in Atlanta denied the request, Mr. Jones said, because the program discriminated on the basis of race and sex.

No attempt has been made since to rekindle the program, Mr. Jones said.

Other approaches are being tried elsewhere.

In Portland, Ore., for instance, schools are developing a multicultural curriculum, which Milwaukee officials said they are using as a model for a districtwide curriculum overhaul now in the planning stages.

Mentoring programs have emerged in several cities to put black boys in touch with successful black men.

One such program, Project 2000 in Washington, is run by Concerned Black Men Inc., a community-service organization, and trains men to serve as teaching assistants in elementary-school classrooms.

Questions of Law

Like the Dade County program, the legality of the Milwaukee African-American immersion schools has been called into question.

“I think they’re illegal” because the schools would discriminate against girls and nonblacks, said Phyllis McClure of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Washington.

Because “it’s clearly the intent” to focus on black boys, Ms. McClure said, the declaration by the school district that the schools will be open to any student does not help.

“That’s just like desegregating schools by free choice,” she said.

District officials said they worked closely with the district’s lawyer to ensure that the immersion-school plan would not run afoul of the law.

David S. Tatel, a Washington lawyer for the Milwaukee schools, said he could not comment on the board’s final resolution establishing the schools because he had not yet seen it.

But in a July letter to the district, he said he thought the schools could be created legally if careful attention was paid to ensuring that admissions and hiring for the schools were conducted in a nondiscriminatory manner and that an inclusive, “multicultural” curriculum were used.

In an interview, Mr. Tatel also said he warned the district that legally a recipient of federal funds “cannot do indirectly what it is prohibited from doing directly.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as 2 Schools Aimed For Black Males Set in Milwaukee