An Overnight Solution

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Historically black colleges are ideally suited to operate African-American prep schools.

About a dozen buildings in various stages of disrepair and restoration remain on the Sedalia, N.C., campus of Palmer Memorial Institute, an African-American prep school that educated more than 1,000 junior and senior high school students from 1902 to 1971. Founded by Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Palmer is the first North Carolina historic site honoring an African-American or a woman. Unlike most other turn-of-the-century Jim Crow schools, Palmer offered a holistic college-preparatory education blending academics, character development, and social graces. The school's tradition of excellence ended after a 1970 fire destroyed the Palmer Building, the jewel of the campus. Weeds now grow in cracked concrete along shaded walkways that led from dormitories to classrooms. But lessons may yet rise from the ashes of Palmer, which was in its heyday an oasis of learning.

Educators have long known the importance of climate in fostering learning. School districts across the country are working to improve school climate. Unfortunately, home climate is, for the most part, beyond the schools' control. Teachers face an uphill battle in helping students from troubled homes.

Confined by socioeconomic conditions, too many urban youths devalue intellect, dismiss opportunity, give in to negative pressures, and engage in risky behaviors that consign them to the underclass, or worse, the justice system. Unfortunately, the factors that contribute to poor performance among disadvantaged minority students—lack of family involvement, cultural differences, low expectations, homogeneous classroom groupings, and poor command of the English language—often compound in public schools.

Underachieving students' performance might improve, though, in residential schools, where educators have optimum control of the climate. A 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week learning environment could give inner-city students an edge against failure. Residential charter schools could ease negative pressures and restore children's ambition.

With a reputation for polishing diamonds in the rough, historically black colleges and universities are ideally suited to operate residential charter schools. Many black institutions of higher education started as normal schools that awarded high school diplomas and provided teacher training. So residential charter schools would mark a return to black colleges' roots. The colleges' education departments could play a vital role in residential charter schools by providing pupil support, curriculum development, student assessment, and program evaluation. Further, education majors could serve as tutors and student-teachers. Of course, logistical issues, such as dormitory space—at a premium on many black college campuses—need to be worked out.

The racial achievement gap has clearly reached crisis proportions.

Some progressives will undoubtedly cringe at the thought of uprooting disadvantaged minority children to send them to boarding schools. After all, Native Americans did not fare well in the 19th century when the Bureau of Indian Affairs barged onto reservations, snatched children from their families, and shipped them off to missionary boarding schools. Whites claimed that assimilation was crucial to the Indians' survival. At the schools, the children were given haircuts, new clothes, and new names. They were forced to renounce their heritage and adopt the white man's customs. Rebellious students were sometimes abused. Robbed of cultural identity, some graduates ultimately felt that they fit in nowhere.

African-Americans have a kinder, gentler tradition of going off to school. During Reconstruction, many rural blacks had no choice but to leave home for educational opportunities beyond grammar school. The Great Migration also saw many immediate families separated. Children attended school and lived with extended families in the South while their parents worked two or three jobs up North. This arrangement not only solved a child-care dilemma, but also sheltered the children from urban dangers and distractions.

A similar scenario was the premise of the hit sitcom "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," starring rapper-turned-actor Will Smith. Fearful of gang violence, a Philadelphia mother sent her teenage son to live with wealthy relatives and attend an exclusive prep school in Los Angeles.

Since the 1960s, agencies such as the Boston-based A Better Chance have placed highly motivated minority youths in prep schools. These opportunities, however, have not trickled down to average students, many of whom could also use a change of venue.

In 19th-century America, poor and orphaned children were sent to privately funded residential schools. By the 1940s, that approach had fallen out of favor.

A 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week learning environment could give inner-city students an edge against failure.

Granted, boarding schools for underperforming students would be a radical step, but the racial achievement gap has clearly reached crisis proportions. In nearly every urban school district in the United States, minority students, particularly African-American males, lag behind other students in academic achievement and account for a disproportionate percentage of suspensions, expulsions, dropouts, and referrals to remedial or special education programs. Conversely, African-American students are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs and high-level and advanced-placement courses. Since 1988, progress toward closing the achievement gap has stalled.

Current initiatives, from remediation to character education, amount to a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile, the boat is sinking with a whole generation aboard. Water is rushing in faster than schools and community groups can bail it out.

As noted in Education Watch: The 1996 Education Trust State and National Data Book, "We take students who have less to begin with and give them less in school, too." The Washington-based Education Trust contends that test scores of minority students will rise if they are taught at high levels. To close the gap, intensified efforts, like those that could occur in residential settings, are needed.

Residential schools could be a lifeline for inner-city students. Though the jury is still out, residential schools are experiencing a revival. A 1996 survey by the Center for Education Reform of 300 charter schools found five university-run charter schools and six residential charter schools. In 1997, the nation's first public boarding school opened in Trenton, N.J., and Boston University's state-funded Residential Charter School opened in Granby, Mass. With an average of five students per class, BU's charter school serves children who had been in foster or group homes to develop academic and social skills. In Washington, SEED Public Charter School provides a residential, coed learning environment for academic underperformers from troubled homes. Located in the Capital Children's Museum, the school began with a class of 40 7th graders and will eventually go through 12th grade.

Interestingly, Piney Woods Academy, a black prep school in rural Mississippi known for academic rigor and strict discipline, is helping the Detroit school system's Paul Robeson Academy phase in a dormitory component. With a $400,000 Kellogg Foundation grant, Piney Woods aims to replicate its success at inner-city schools.

Most school districts have alternative programs for students who have been suspended or expelled. Proactive and preventive, residential schools could rescue students before they pose disciplinary problems. Though a substantial investment, residential schools are a bargain when compared with the societal costs of juvenile delinquency and dropouts.

Like it or not, boarding schools are making a comeback. And this time, the powers-that-be are not lassoing Indians; they're rounding up inner-city youths. That compels the African-American community to participate in, rather than resist, the trend. Black colleges and universities should follow Boston University's lead and start residential charter schools. That could help save more than a few children and cultivate new recruits for historically black colleges and universities, while at the same time preserving African-American culture.

Vol. 19, Issue 26, Pages 42, 60

Published in Print: March 8, 2000, as An Overnight Solution
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