IN the wake of a federal court order, 27 elementary-school girls are enrolling today in three Detroit public schools designed as "male academies."Several urban school districts with large black populations are considering different approaches to teaching African-American males, who are dropping out and failing at an alarming rate. Milwaukee opened an "African-American Immersion School" last week in an already racially segregated elementary school on the city's north side. New York is considering a special school for black males, and Baltimore began several classes exclusively for African-American boys last year. In Detroit, where 90 percent of the students are African-American, almost half of black males drop out before graduating. To combat the problem, the school board established three "male academies." The experimental program is designed to provide male role models, offer extended hours, stress discipline, and include an "African-centered" curriculum. "We've got to look at some realities here," says Clifford Watson, a Detroit elementary-school principal who first proposed the idea of a school for the city's boys. "Clearly the educational structure as it exists has not worked. All we have to do is look at the horrifying statistics facing African-American males." "They're dropping out as early as the third grade," Mr. Watson says. "I felt that we needed to start early. We can't wait until high school or middle school." About 1,200 students applied for the 560 openings at the three "academies," which are named for Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Paul Robeson. But in trying to establish single-sex schools for black males, school districts are running into legal challenges. Milwaukee's "African-American Immersion School" allowed girls to attend, in order to avoid these challenges. The enrollment is split almost evenly between boys and girls. In August, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund sued the Detroit school board on behalf of a woman with three daughters in the public schools. Lawyers argued that by calling the schools "male academies" district officials made it clear that girls need not apply. On Aug. 15, the court issued a preliminary injunction against the school board, ruling that all-male public schools are unconstitutional. "There is no evidence the school syst em is failing males because girls attend schools with them," the judge said. "Girls fail, too." He ordered the school board to admit 136 girls as soon as possible. But by the preliminary deadline last week, only 27 applications from female students had been received and all were accepted. "We're going to keep the application process open until 136 girls apply," says Deborah McGriff, superintendent of Detroit schools. It may take a while to attract the additional 109 applicants. "Right now our community is saying, 'Keep your girls at home. Don't enroll them, Watson says, citing broad community support for the experiment. "The community was in favor of all-male academies before the lawsuit, during the lawsuit, and after the lawsuit," Superintendent McGriff says. THE school board has announced plans to open an all-female program in January but has agreed to abide by the court order to enroll girls in the existing schools, which are now known as "African-Centered Academies." Meanwhile, the board requested a full trial of the case, which isscheduled to begin in February. Although the girls taking their seats in the three Detroit academies today strike a preliminary blow against special programs for black males, the national debate over how best to help African-American boys continues. United States Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander spoke out against separate schools for black males earlier this month. And even though the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund recently issued a statement opposing all-male schools, the black community is divided over the issue. Those who are arguing against all-male schools for young black men "just don't know what's going on," says Spencer H. Holland, director of the Center for Educating African-American Males in Baltimore. He reports improved performance and attendance among the black boys in Baltimore's all-male classes. But some black activists argue that using public funds to establish schools for black males undermines past efforts to eliminate segregation. "What we have now are people who are beginning to question the 1954 desegregation decision," says Horace Sheffield Jr., executive director of the Detroit Association of Black Organizations. "This is still a land where the law counts and we ought to abide by it while trying to find a way to meet this ... problem." Watson says Detroit already has four single-sex public schools. "We have three schools for girls who are pregnant and we have one for boys who are in the expulsion tract," he says. "The precedent had already been set." Nevertheless, Mr. Sheffield calls the concept of all-male schools a "retrogression" for blacks. "Black folks have got to live in the long-run as well as in the short-run," he says. "We cannot mortgage our future on something that may turn out to be nothing more than a quick-fix that didn't work." At Woodward Elementary School, which houses Malcolm X Academy, the addition of girls won't convince Principal Watson to change course. He originally proposed an experiment to see if the presence of more men in the classroom and a more relevant "Afrocentric" approach to studies would enhance learning and reduce behavior problems. "I will still test those two hypotheses," he says.