Equity & Diversity

Black Boys’ Educational Plight Spurs Single-Gender Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — June 18, 2007 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of one of the charts with this story contained an error. It should have said that while black males accounted for 8.7 percent of U.S. school enrollment in 2002, they constituted 23.8 percent of those who had received out-of-school suspension, 12.9 percent of those who had been classified as learning-disabled, 21.7 percent of those who were labeled emotionally disturbed, and 20.6 percent of those who were classified as mentally retarded.

In the face of mounting evidence that schools are losing alarming numbers of young black men, a small band of educators gathered here recently to bolster one response to the crisis: creating public schools designed to serve African-American males.

Haunted by the specter of a bleak future for millions of young men—and aware that single-gender programs can face legal and political opposition—the two dozen principals were nonetheless united in their conviction that it is high time to build education programs that meet the academic and emotional needs of black boys.

“[People] ask us why we are doing single-gender education, as though what the kids are currently involved in is working,” David C. Banks, the founding principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men, a 3-year-old public school that serves predominantly low-income black and Latino boys in New York City, told a roomful of educators, scholars, and policymakers. “When you recognize that you are in crisis, you have to do more.”

Mr. Banks and other school leaders formed the core of a June 3-5 conference billed as “a contemplation on the education of black male students.” It was co-sponsored by Wheelock College, the Panasonic Foundation, Eagle Academy, and the Delores Walker Johnson Center for Thoughtful Leadership, a training institute that is part of the Cambridge, Mass.-based ATLAS Learning Communities, which helps schools implement its comprehensive reform model.

The conference enabled principals to share promising practices for boys who have likely had to learn in crowded schools with inexperienced teachers, cope without fathers at home, and contend with pop culture’s negative images of them. Woven through the conversations about academic strategy were signs of the urgency and passion the school leaders see as necessary to the work.

A Group in Trouble

Black boys lag behind black girls and their non-African-American male peers on key indicators of educational success.

Graduation: Percent of male students who graduate from high school with a standard diploma in four years:


Test Scores: Percent of male students who scored at the basic level or better on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress 4th grade reading exam:


In that same year, the percent who scored at the basic level or better on the NAEP 8th grade reading test:


SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2007

“This isn’t a job, it’s a ministry,” Jerome Harrell, the principal of the Alpha School for Excellence, in Youngstown, Ohio, told his colleagues.

Shawn Hardnett, the founder of the KIPP Polaris Academy in Houston, a boys’ charter middle school that is set to open in the fall as part of the Knowledge Is Power Program network of schools, urged his fellow educators to press one another to determine the very best practices for their students.

“Every black boy I fail could end up in jail. We need to push each other hard to get better at the craft of school leadership. Push me,” Mr. Hardnett said, his voice rising. “Push me down until I get this, because I can’t fail one more.”

The conference participants burst into applause.

A Renewed Focus

Concern about black boys’ high dropout and expulsion rates, and their low grades, test scores, and college-going rates, is not new. Neither are attempts to create programs tailored to their needs. A 1991 Ebony magazine article, headlined “Do Black Males Need Special Schools?,” highlighted several, in fact.

But a recent pileup of reports by scholars and activists on the educational plight of African-American boys has drawn new attention and energy to the problem, and prompted some to suggest single-gender schools as part of the solution.

Concern also has coincided with opportunity: Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education announced final regulations easing the way for single-sex education. The new rules permit public schools to group students by gender, as long as the education for students of both sexes is “substantially equal.” The single-sex program must be related to improving the achievement of students, providing diverse educational opportunities, or meeting the needs of particular students. (“New U.S. Rules Boost Single-Sex Schooling,” Nov. 1, 2006.)

According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, a Poolesville, Md.-based advocacy group, there are 262 public schools in the United States that are entirely single-gender or offer some single-sex classrooms, compared with 16 four years ago.

With the expansion has come opposition, however. The New York Civil Rights Coalition has asked U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to look into a program in Ossining, N.Y., that provides extra academic support to black male students. Federal education officials declined to comment on the request.

Signs of Distress

While black males accounted for 8.7 percent of U.S. school enrollment in 2002, they accounted for ...

• 23.8 percent of those who had received out-of-school suspension
• 12.9 percent of those who had been classified as learning-disabled
• 21.7 percent of those who were labeled as emotionally disturbed
• 20.6 percent of those who were classified as mentally retarded

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education office for civil rights survey, 2002, as reported in “Public Education and Black Male Students,” Schott Foundation for Public Education, 2006

The American Civil Liberties Union plans to file suit within a year over one or more of the newer single-gender public school programs, said Emily J. Martin, the deputy director of the organization’s women’s-rights project. “Whenever gender is used as a primary or only way to teach a student, it inevitably plays to overbroad stereotypes,” Ms. Martin said.

Theodore M. Shaw, the director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which spearheaded the legal attack that led to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning racial segregation in public schools, said single-gender programs for black boys could be on “thin ice legally” if they exclude students based on their race or gender, but most don’t do so.

Branding schools or programs racially discriminatory solely because they seek to help black boys, he said, is “intellectually dishonest” when the school system already segregates poor minority children in educationally inferior settings.

“The courts have said that any race-conscious program has to be justified by a compelling state interest,” Mr. Shaw said. “This crisis among young black boys and men is something that rises to the level of a compelling state interest, and justifies carefully crafted and limited programs. To confuse attempts to address that crisis with racial discrimination is rather shallow-minded.”

‘Don’t Know Enough’

Pedro Noguera, a professor of teaching and learning at New York University, said designing scores of single-gender programs for black boys could prove misguided without a more complex understanding of the multiple factors that undermine their school performance. He hopes to gain more insight into those dynamics through a three-year research project, begun last fall, that will compare seven single-gender programs for low-income minority boys with seven programs serving demographically similar, but coeducational, student enrollments.

Mr. Noguera and other scholars note that much of the research on single-gender education focuses on parochial schools, or on private schools that serve predominantly white, middle-class populations.

“It’s all about the theory of good intentions, but that’s not good enough,” said Mr. Noguera. “What constitutes best practice in those schools? We just really don’t know enough to go around creating a lot of these right now. It could be that just creating a great school is the answer. And then you have to wonder, is [the problem] really about race or gender?”

Enthusiasm for single-gender schools, combined with the easing of federal regulations, has resulted in many hastily assembled single-sex programs, said Leonard Sax, the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. He advised educators to take at least a year to research and train their staffs in gender-based brain development and instructional strategies.

“If all you do is put girls in one room and boys in another, you don’t accomplish anything good,” he said. “You end up with math being taught to boys by talking about sports and to girls by talking about shopping.”

Proficiency Rates Rise

The principals at the conference—some veteran leaders of boys’ schools, others rookies—spent much of their time in small discussion groups, sharing experiences and strategies. They explored ways to shape curriculum and pedagogy, and ways they and their teachers can serve as disciplinarians, role models, and cheerleaders for their students.

In one such group, Curt R. Green told colleagues about his experience as the principal of Capitol Pre-College Academy for Boys in Baton Rouge, La. When the school was coeducational, 30 percent to 40 percent of its students scored at the proficient level on state tests, he said. But after two years as a single-gender program, he said, boys’ proficiency rates increased by 20 percentage points or more, and there were fewer behavior-related suspensions and expulsions.

Mr. Green, who will be the principal of a new public boys’ school in Atlanta this fall, credited the Baton Rouge improvements largely to instructional strategies that research suggests might work well for boys.

For example, Capitol teachers were trained to understand boys’ “tactile-kinesthetic” strengths, allowing them to move around in class more and designing more projects requiring hands-on work, he said. They tried to play to competitive spirit among boys by letting them use “clickers” to signal their answers to a question.

“A lot of boys jump out of their seats to answer, or blurt out answers, and that behavior is punished [in traditional classrooms],” Mr. Green said. “This way, it’s channeled into something positive. … It’s about looking at the way [boys] learn and focusing on those strategies.”

Tim King, the founder of Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, which opened with 9th graders last fall as Chicago’s only all-male public school, said he put a premium on fostering a positive culture. One of its building blocks is “community,” a daily morning gathering of all 160 students and the staff. In jackets and ties, students celebrate their accomplishments, but they are also called to account for transgressions such as being late for school, Mr. King said. Then they recite their “creed,” a chant about believing in themselves, one another, and their future success.

Principals’ brainstorming sessions produced a range of suggestions for ways to better engage boys in school, from building more “action-oriented” story lines and real-world applications into the curriculum to creating schools with strong discipline and decorum that take advantage of the role-modeling and mentoring potential of men in their communities.

The Rev. Joseph M. Doyle, the president of St. Augustine High School, a 48-year-old Roman Catholic boys’ school that serves a predominantly low-income African-American population in New Orleans, said strong academic preparation combined with the close bonds between students and staff members can produce outstanding results.

“Ninety to 95 percent of our kids go to college, and they come back to the community as fire chiefs and [district attorneys],” he said. “This is the kind of men we produce.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as Black Boys’ Educational Plight Spurs Single-Gender Schools


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