Public Schools for Black Males

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FEWER than 20 percent of black male students in Milwaukee public schools maintain a C average or better. Black youths, who represent 28 percent of the enrollment in those schools, accounted for 50 percent of all school suspensions last year. Similar statistics could be cited for other inner-city school systems. Many black males drop out, lured by life on the street. In an attempt to keep these students in school and out of trouble by making the classroom relevant to their lives, Milwaukee will open two pilot African-American Immersion Schools - one elementary, one middle school - next fall. Any student may apply, but the schools will feature classes and a mentoring program designed to attract black boys.

Meanwhile, New York City's Board of Education is considering a proposal to open a public high school for black and Hispanic boys. Courses at the Ujamaa Institute would be taught ``from an African-American frame of reference,'' according to a prospectus, and mainly by black men. The aim is to instill cultural pride in young minority men and inspire them with successful male role models.

In both cities, the plans were initiated and are being developed by black educators and parents. Yet the proposals have also been denounced by prominent black scholars and civil rights advocates, who consider the schools, as a critical editorial puts it, a ``throwback to segregation.''

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The critics' concerns need to be reckoned with, but they characterize the experiments too harshly. Inner-city boys can present special learning and disciplinary challenges for schools. Imaginative - albeit carefully monitored - efforts to meet those challenges could yield lessons that might even be incorporated into ordinary public schools.

Schools like the ones proposed might be able to establish a learning environment that is more congenial to minority males, and one in which peer pressure acts to reward achievement and keep boys in school - exactly the opposite effects of the peer influences in too many urban schools. Private military schools have had these effects on generations of boys who, for disciplinary or other reasons, floundered in their local schools. The black-schools experiments are worth a try, with close evaluation.

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