Law & Courts

Districts’ Boys-Only Programs Prompt Legal Questions

By Corey Mitchell — March 03, 2015 5 min read
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The American Civil Liberties Union and a District of Columbia council member are questioning the legality of plans for an all-boys public high school that they say may violate federal protections meant to ensure equality for young women.

The proposed school in Washington is part of a $20 million initiative announced by District of Columbia Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the city’s schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, to boost academic achievement and graduation rates among black and Hispanic boys.

Dozens of big-city districts are ramping up an array of similar new programs that focus specifically on improving the academic and social-emotional outcomes for boys of color—widely praised efforts that are also drawing concerns over whether girls of color are being unfairly left behind.

The ACLU’s challenge to the District of Columbia effort is the latest in the group’s yearslong campaign to identify segregated classes, schools, and extracurricular activities that violate Title IX of Education Amendments of 1972 and the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

While operating single-sex initiatives is legal, U.S. Department of Education guidelines say that public schools that segregate by gender must offer “substantially equal” benefits for the opposite sex.

School districts for years have undertaken initiatives to address the lagging achievement of black boys.

“There are very good reasons for that [attention], but minority girls often aren’t included,” said Galen L. Sherwin, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “Resources should be offered to at-need students regardless of their sex.”

President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program, a bid for the federal government to offer greater assistance to minority men, added a sense of urgency to the issue and is fueling more discussion of all-boys programs.

The Oakland, Calif., school system, which launched an effort in 2010 to boost achievement for black boys, is among the districts that initially relied on foundation funding to avoid running afoul of Title IX and the equal-protection clause. Title IX requires gender equity for boys and girls in educational programs that receive federal funding.

In the nation’s capital, the “Empowering Males of Color” initiative will be at least partially funded through private donations and will include a mentoring program and targeted grants to schools to improve academic development and family engagement. The district plans to partner with Urban Prep Academies, a nonprofit that runs three highly regarded all-boys high schools in Chicago, to operate its new high school for boys.

What About Girls?

The ACLU sent a letter last month to Mayor Bowser asking how the city would balance benefits for girls. The school district declined to comment on the complaint.

The Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools—which represents 67 of the nation’s largest school districts—is a partner with President Obama on My Brother’s Keeper. The District of Columbia school system is among the member districts that pledged to take up targeted programs for minority boys.

Single-sex education is generally prohibited under Title IX. But in 2006, the Education Department loosened guidelines to allow districts to create single-gender schools and classes, so long as enrollment is voluntary.

The department issued new guidance last December clarifying the circumstances under which coeducational schools could offer female-only or male-only classes. But to make the case that many programs fall short of federal requirements, the ACLU has filed complaints and raised questions about gender-specific initiatives from coast to coast, including programs in Alabama, Maine, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

School officials in Lawrence, Kan., recently expanded a mentoring program for high school boys to include all students after the ACLU argued that its male-only program caused “significant harm” to girls.

How girls will receive comparable offerings should be hashed out well before school administrators roll out programs, said Fatima Goss Graves, the vice president of education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington.

“These are the sorts of questions you need to ask in advance, not after,” Ms. Goss Graves said.

Many advocates of single-sex education support the practice based on the belief that girls and boys learn differently.

The question of what the District of Columbia system would offer as a “substantially equal” benefit for girls to counter the all-boys high school prompted city councilor Mary M. Cheh to seek a legal opinion from the city’s attorney general.

Boys in Peril

Some Washington leaders have come to the initiative’s defense, arguing that boys of color in the city are in peril. School district data show black and Hispanic boys lagging behind other student groups on multiple measures of performance. The rates at which black and Hispanic boys graduate from high school in four years are 48 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

While black and Hispanic girls in the District of Columbia performed better than their male peers last year, at 62 percent and 66 percent, respectively, they lagged far behind white girls and boys, whose four-year graduation rates were 91 percent and 82 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Oakland district’s Office of African American Male Achievement, with its manhood-development classes, has emerged as a national model, notably for its success in raising grades and attendance while reducing behavioral problems. Like other single-sex programs, though, Oakland’s effort has faced legal questions.

To avoid violating Title IX, then-Superintendent Tony Smith first created the cabinet-level office with private funding. Christopher Chatmon, the office’s executive director, worked outside the district until 2012. That’s when the Oakland school board agreed to five years of federal monitoring as the district works to reduce high suspension rates for black students. The district faced a legal and moral quandary: risk running afoul of Title IX and the equal-protection clause or continue to allow what Mr. Smith called “institutional oppression and racism” that restricted educational opportunities.

“We were breaking federal law in how we suspend black boys and how we referred them to special education,” said Mr. Chatmon, who estimates that his office is 60 percent foundation-funded, with tax dollars covering the balance of its $1 million-plus budget.

Federal guidelines do allow single-sex classes, schools, or extracurricular activities if they are designed to meet a government interest, such as reducing suspension rates for black students, according to the Education Department.

Under the monitoring agreement, Oakland must offer mentoring, teacher training, and parent education programs. Mr. Chatmon’s office also aims to boost average attendance for black boys by 75 percent, double their graduation rate, and close a huge 4th grade literacy gap.

“The focus on black boys is predicated on the data,” Mr. Chatmon said. “Nobody is preventing someone from doing similar work with other students.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Boys-Only Programs Raise Legal Concerns

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