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ACLU Questions District of Columbia's Plans for All-Male Prep School

UPDATED

(This post has been updated to add comments from Mayor Muriel Bowser.) 

The American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital is questioning the legality of the all-boys preparatory high school planned for the District of Columbia as part of the school system's "Empowering Males of Color" initiative.

In a Feb. 23 letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser, ACLU Executive Director Monica Hopkins-Maxwell wrote that while she applauded the district's efforts to boost the academic achievement of boys of color and to prepare them for college and careers, the group had legal concerns about whether the all-boys college preparatory school scheduled to open in 2016 was the best way to address the racial disparities in educational achievement.

The letter raises questions about the legality of the effort and transparency of the process, including how the district intended to address possible violations of Title IX, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex in education and federally funded programs, and whether the school district put out a request for proposals before selecting Chicago-based Urban Prep Academy as its partner to run the all-boys prep school.

The letter also highlighted another key ACLU point of contention with single-gender schools—that there is no well-designed research showing that single-gender schools improved students' academic performance and that those schools reinforced gender stereotypes.

And while the group acknowledged the lagging performance of minority boys and girls in the district, the overrepresentation of black and Latino males in the criminal justice system, and ongoing efforts across the country to address those inequalities, it again questioned the employment of single-gender schools as one of the mechanisms to address those inequalities.

The ACLU's letter comes weeks after Councilwoman Mary Cheh also asked the District of Columbia's Attorney General Karl Racine to review the program. 

Cheh, who says she supports efforts to improve opportunities for both minority boys and girls who face comparable challenges, raised similar concerns over possible Title IX violations. She's also questioning whether the proposed single-gender high school may conflict with the District of Columbia's Human Rights Act. The councilwoman said she wanted those questions answered before money was expended on the initiative.

The district's three-year, $20 million "Empowering Males of Color" initiative was launched on Jan. 21.  Aligned with President Obama's My Brother's Keeper program, those efforts aim to recruit 500 mentors for boys of color to help increase the percentage of black and Latino boys who read at grade level in the 4th grade by 50 percent; targeted aid to schools to support academic development, family engagement and social-emotional supports; and the new all-boys college preparatory high school.

This is not the first time that the programs aimed at boosting black male achievement have fallen under the scrutiny of the ACLU. In January, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas asked the Lawrence school district in Kansas to suspend a high school mentoring program for boys of color because the program, the group argued, violated Title IX.

The mentoring program at Free State High School pairs 15 boys with male mentors from the community, with the goal of improving the school's graduation rate for boys, which trails the rate for girls.

And the ACLU has filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education in the past against single-gender schools in Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, and New York. Those challenges prompted the department last year to issue guidance to school districts to keep them from running afoul of the law. 

Here are the questions the ACLU raised in its letter to Mayor Bowser in Washington:

  • Gender segregation in schools can violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, as well as Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How does DCPS plan on addressing potential Title IX issues that arise from an all-male public high school?
  • What evidence does DCPS have that single sex schools will address systemic problems in education and reduce racial disparities in educational achievement?
  • DCPS says that it is partnering with Urban Prep Academies from Chicago, Illinois, to operate this school. Was there a Request for Proposals? If not, how was Urban Prep Academies selected for this role?
  • What is the graduation rate of students who enroll at Urban Prep Academies?  What percentage of students is expelled for disciplinary reasons?  What percentage of students is expelled for academic reasons?  What percentage drops out voluntarily or voluntarily transfers to other schools? 
  • What funding structure will be applied to single sex schools in the District?
  • How will the public be notified about who may apply to attend a single sex school in the District?

UPDATE: Mayor Bowser defended the program this week at a Council meeting.

"None of us would be doing our job if we didn't realize how far and how fast the boys and men of color are falling behind," Bowser said, according to WAMU. "We have to do everything we can—within the law of course—to make sure we are targeting those very significant gaps."

WAMU has the details. 

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