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DC Public Schools has announced a new initiative that will train a “laser-like focus” on African-American and Latino males, two groups that fare worst on many measures of academic achievement. But the effort, which includes a new all-boys high school, will inevitably leave some students in relative darkness.
DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently unveiled a three-pronged program targeted at the 43% of DCPS students who are males of color. Spending $20 million over the next three years, DCPS plans to recruit 500 tutor-mentors, fund school-level programs aimed at engaging and supporting black and Hispanic boys, and—most ambitiously—bring in a successful Chicago charter network to replicate its prep school model in DC.
Many details are still unclear. DCPS is already recruiting volunteer tutors for the four well-regarded tutoring programs it is partnering with, but at least one of them uses only paid tutors. More fundamentally, it’s not clear exactly where the $20 million will come from, although DCPS hopes to raise at least $7.4 million of it from private donors.
Another question is whether Urban Prep Academies, the organization that will run DCPS’s prep school beginning in the fall of 2016, will enjoy the same degree of autonomy here that it’s had running three charter schools in Chicago. Henderson promised that Urban Prep will have “as many autonomies as they need to make it work,” but she added that the DC Council may need to change the law to make that possible.
Urban Prep has made headlines for getting 100% of its alumni into four-year colleges since it began graduating students five years ago. Its school uniform, which includes red ties and navy blazers adorned with the school crest and motto—“Credimus,” Latin for “We believe”—calls to mind an elite boys’ school like St. Alban’s.
But, unlike most of those at St. Albans, Urban Prep’s students are black, and many are from low-income families.
Joining Henderson at last week’s kick-off event, the school’s founder, Tim King, told an inspiring story about a homeless student who “would actually sit on the cold floor in the shelter bathroom doing his homework, because it was the only place there that had the lights on past 10 pm.” That student, King added, became class valedictorian and is now a student at Georgetown University.
Snaring Urban Prep was a coup for DC, according to Henderson. “Let me be clear,” she said. “Everybody in the country wants Urban Prep Academies to open a school in their city.”
One reason DC won out might be that Henderson and King have known each other since their undergraduate days at Georgetown, where King was assigned to be Henderson’s mentor.
Critics say school has high attrition and low scores
As with almost any successful charter school, Urban Prep has its critics. Some say the attrition rate is high, with the size of a class sometimes shrinking from 150 to 50 students between 9th and 12 grades. (Urban Prep did not respond to questions about this and other topics.)
Another complaint about charters like Urban Prep is that its students are a self-selected group, with more motivated families and a lower poverty rate than students in neighborhood public schools. Although the DC version of Urban Prep will be a traditional public school rather than a charter, the same criticism could apply, since parents will presumably need to take affirmative steps to enroll their sons.
One response to these critiques is that even if Urban Prep doesn’t work for all kids, at least it works for the ones who get there and stick with it. But some question even that.
At one of the school’s three campuses last year, only 9% of students were deemed ready for college-level work, defined as scoring at least 21 on the ACT. At the other campuses, the figures were 28% and 20%. The average for Chicago public schools is 27%.
Even if one assumes that Urban Prep does change the life trajectory of the young African-American men it serves in Chicago, will it do the same for the young Latino men that are also supposed to be part of DCPS’s “laser-like focus”? (Speakers used that metaphor no less than six times during the announcement of the initiative.)
While the DC school presumably won’t exclude anyone on the basis of race or ethnicity, the Urban Prep model is clearly geared to black students. And its planned location at some unspecified site east of the Anacostia River, an area that is almost entirely African-American, may make it difficult for Latino boys to attend in any event.
Black and Latino girls need help too
And what about black and Latino girls? While the legality of single-sex education used to be in dispute, the federal government loosened its rules in 2006, and since then single-sex schools and classes have proliferated.
Research has been equivocal on whether single-sex education produces better results. But some data indicate that it’s most likely to benefit poor and minority students, although it’s not clear why.
Single-sex charter schools like the Chicago version of Urban Prep are free to operate with no restrictions. But when a single-sex school is part of a traditional school district, federal policy requires the district to make another school of “substantially equal” quality available to the excluded gender. That other school can be either coed or single-sex.
Will black and Latino girls have a “substantially equal” option? That could become a matter for debate, and possibly even litigation.
Aside from legality, the plan for Urban Prep and indeed the whole “Empowering Males of Color” initiative raise questions of equity. On DC’s standardized tests last year, the proficiency rate for black girls was about 45%, and for Latinas about 57%. That’s better than the rates for black and Hispanic boys—about 35% and 49%, respectively. But it’s way below the 90% proficiency rates for white students.
Of course, efforts that elevate the needs of one group almost always have an adverse effect on others. And in the case of young men of color, you can make a case that it’s justified.
Perhaps a bigger problem is that Urban Prep, in combination with DC’s many charter schools and its several application-only DCPS high schools, will further drain off the more motivated male students from neighborhood schools, leaving behind a higher concentration of those who are hardest to educate.