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“This basically cuts off access to college,” says Melissa Roderick, a codirector of the consortium and a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. “Seventy-eight percent have access only to nonselective and two-year colleges [with open enrollments]” and will struggle while they are there, due to poor preparation.
Although the statistics for black males are particularly dire, they are also part of an overall pattern of poor school performance among boys of all racial and economic backgrounds that recently prompted a flurry of media attention, including a Newsweek cover story announcing “The Boy Crisis.”
“High schools have got to take responsibility for how they’re engaging boys in their school environments,” says Roderick, who has no professional affiliation with Urban Prep. “I don’t know if this particular school will figure it out, but I can’t think of a better group of people to do it.”
King believes that Urban Prep can change these dismal outcomes by stressing college preparation from the minute students walk in the door and by tailoring the school’s curriculum and teaching methods specifically to the needs of boys. For example, he points to studies that have found that boys’ hearing develops more slowly than girls and that boys learn better under stress. Accordingly, the school’s teachers will talk louder and challenge the students aggressively.
Of course, one of the basic rationales of all-boys’ schools has been that they remove the distraction of the opposite sex-and the behaviors boys engage in to attract the attention of girls. King also expects that the all-male environment will ease pressure on boys to conform to typically masculine gender roles, making it easier to participate in activities such as choir and other “feminine” endeavors.
Urban Prep will emphasize the language arts, in which boys underperform, requiring twice as many English classes-including literature, writing, and public speaking-as public schools. To build skills and character and make students more competitive as college applicants, the school will also require pupils to engage in extracurricular activities and community service and to work one day a week in a professional setting during their junior and senior years.
Urban Prep’s all-male enrollment is attractive to Debra and Clifton Gill, who live in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood and are exploring the possibility of sending their 13-year-old son, Ajamu, to the school in the fall. “It may be a better environment for a young male,” Debra says, “due to the fact that it allows them to be in an environment where they can focus on their educational studies and not so much on the social issues they face at this age.”
Elsewhere, though, news of Urban Prep prompted an outcry. A few weeks prior to the school’s approval, during the lead-in to his MSNBC program The Situation, the talk show host and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson called it “a return to state-sponsored racial segregation.” (Later in the program, he also said, “I still hope the school works, because I hope the kids succeed.")
At least half a dozen bloggers reacted negatively, many of them seeing a double standard at work and speculating on the outrage that would accompany a similar plan for a predominantly white school. “This is outright discrimination against all other students, including female. . . . Didn’t civil rights teach anyone about equality?” read one of more than 100 comments that an article about the school elicited on the Web site Freerepublic.com.