MORE than 30 years after the United States Supreme Court ordered public schools to desegregate, a handful of urban school districts are promoting separate schools for minority male students. Milwaukee plans to open two ``African-American Immersion Schools'' next fall, and the New York City Board of Education recently proposed an experimental high school for black and Hispanic male students.
But critics say that isolating minority males, who are failing disproportionately under the current system, is not the answer.
``This is an act of desperation,'' says Walter Farrell, professor of educational policy and community studies at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. ``The existing practices are failing and need to be revised in totality. But we don't need to separate out groups in order to address this problem.''
Some public school districts are already operating classes for black boys taught by black male teachers. Baltimore has three such classes this year.
Carter Bayton, who teaches a group of 21 black first-grade boys in Baltimore, says the concept works. ``I've really been surprised at the progress the boys have made,'' he says. ``They don't feel inferior because they don't have the little girl who is always answering the questions.''
But opponents call these programs unconstitutional throwbacks to the days of separate but equal education.
``We need to service African-American males in specialized programs that augment the existing school program,'' Professor Farrell says.
Previous attempts at educating minority males separately have been declared unconstitutional. In 1987, a Dade County, Fla., elementary school started all-male kindergarten and first-grade classes for African-Americans. Although attendance and academic performance improved, the program was declared illegally discriminatory after its first year.
Current proposals in Milwaukee and New York call for open admission to all students, regardless of sex or race. But, promoters say, mostly minority boys are likely to enroll.
The issue is proving divisive within black communities.
``Just because people of color are promoting segregation,'' Farrell says, ``doesn't make it right. We need to prepare all teachers to be effective with an increasingly diverse student population.''