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Single-sex Schools and Minority Achievement: Eagle Academy Takes on the ‘Crisis’ of Inner City Boys

On a cold evening in January 2005, Karen Ruiz's 14-year-old son arrived home from an after-school reading program in the South Bronx with six broken bones in his face.  Angelo-Montay Industrious had been jumped by a bunch of boys he didn’t know. 

Ruiz’s son, then an eighth-grader at Raphael Hernandez Dual Language School on Gerard Avenue, shrugged off the attack, telling his mom it was just “a little tiff outside.” But Ruiz knew she had to do more to protect her son. She didn't have the means to move to a safer neighborhood with better schools. She couldn’t fix the surrounding violence, but she could try to find a school for Angelo that would arm him with an education rivaling that in the whiter, wealthier suburbs.

Angelo is now attending Eagle Academy for Young Men, an all-boys school on East 163rd Street that was created three years ago in a new wave of support for single-sex public schooling. The school promises more than a first-rate, rigorous education—it also promises to fix the minority achievement gap through single-sex education.

 “There is a crisis of inner city young men who are not making it to the finish line. If that’s not a crisis, I don’t know what is,” said David Banks, principal of Eagle Academy. “At every level, African-American and Latino boys are doing far worse than every other group. Eagle Academy is a full-fledged response to this crisis.”

Banks has a vision for the school and is energetically trying to make it happen. He cites studies, like a 2002 report by the Justice Policy Institute, that report there are more black men in prison than in college. He believes schooling black boys in a single-sex learning environment can help reverse that trend and close the achievement gap. Previously he was the principal of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, and he draws on his experiences there in governing his new school.

In 2005, just a year after it opened, 56.4 percent of Eagle Academy’s students were black, 37.3 percent were Hispanic and nearly all were from the school’s mostly minority neighborhood, Melrose, in the South Bronx. That year 68 percent of the students were eligible for free lunch, compared to 51 percent at schools citywide.

Banks believes the solution to the crisis of minority boys lies in education; so do the members of 100 Black Men of America, Inc., an African-American civic group that helped found the school in 2004 and still serves as a partner organization. Their idea is to separate out this at-risk population of poor, urban, minority boys, many from single-mother households, and give them strong doses of exactly the kind of school environment they need. Without it, Banks believes, they might be lost to the violence and hopelessness of gangs, and worse.

“They’re big, they’re angry, and they can’t read. And that’s a recipe for an explosion,” Banks said.

Eagle Academy isn’t the only single-sex school trying to close the minority achievement gap. Excellence Charter School in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, cites the national problem of black boys' low college-going rates in its mission statement and says the school “represents a response to these alarming trends.” The public all-girls schools are also targeting the gap, but more discretely. The city’s four Young Women’s Leadership Schools, for example, say closing the minority achievement gap is one of their objectives.

Single-sex education has gained popularity among public educators recently, in part thanks to new regulations released by the Bush administration, first in 2002 under No Child Left Behind and then again in 2006, loosening Title IX’s restrictions on single-sex schooling. Single-sex public schools had all but disappeared when Title IX was passed in 1972; now there are 10 in New York City and 51 nationwide.

Civil liberties groups and women’s rights organizations still oppose single-sex education on grounds that it’s a form of segregation and it teaches children to discriminate. Last August, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union won a lawsuit in Livingston Parish, La., against a school district that had been separating students by sex.

“Segregation in education is rarely the right answer. I think it’s a cause for concern,” said Emily Martin, deputy director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Single-sex education diminishes the real-life diversity in classrooms and leaves students less prepared to succeed in a co-ed world.”

But with the new regulations, and with the increasing success of schools like the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, single-sex schooling is becoming more popular in public education, and more common. The all-girls school that opened in 1996 graduated 100 percent of its first class, and was able to place every student in a four-year college.

It’s still too early to tell whether Eagle Academy will live up to Banks’ expectations and his promises to raise minority boys’ achievement. The school is just in its third year. It currently has grades nine through 11 and will add a 12th grade in the fall, so key indicators like college-going rates don’t yet exist.

Attendance was higher by about seven percent at Eagle Academy than at citywide schools on average in 2005. And just two students were suspended from Eagle that year, compared to the citywide average of 9.7 students per school. Beyond that, the telling details about the school’s progress are still in the experiences of students and parents.

Angelo’s mother said her son—a teenager with wide eyes, longish black hair and a serious expression—changed last year after the attack. Three months after he was jumped, a fire erupted in their apartment building, forcing the family to move to Hunts Point. The fire also injured one of Angelo’s two dogs, which had to be put to sleep. The confluence of events was hard on Angelo, who had always been a good student, even as he battled dyslexia. His grades dropped, he stopped participating in school activities, and he became angry in a way he never had been before.

But the guidance counselors and teachers at Eagle Academy worked with her to help Angelo focus and bring up his grades, and he’s doing much better, she said.

“There’s a lot of high schools in New York, but there’s not a lot of nice ones,” Ruiz said. Eagle Academy is “a public school, but it’s a good school. It’s hard in New York to find a good high school you don’t have to pay for.”

When Ruiz was a teenager, she attended Evander Childs High School on East Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. Her teachers there tried to get her to drop out and become a secretary. So she appreciates that Eagle Academy takes care to know and understand every student. “They want you to be something in this world. They’re not going to put you in a classroom and forget about you,” she said.

Speaking in a group of other Eagle Academy students, Angelo said most boys at the school don’t like the idea of a single-sex school when they first arrive; often, their parents chose the school for them. But once they get into the rhythm of the school, they grow to like its student-centered approach, all-boys environment and even its strict discipline.

Between classes, and any other time when they’re not closely supervised, the boys goof around: laughing, running, pretending to fight. “We have lots of testosterone here,” said Milton Ramon, the parent coordinator. “It’s a challenge.”

But in class they follow the school’s strict rules. “There is a very serious level of discipline, that’s probably the number one thing,” Banks said. “Boys come to us already off-track, but there are enough men here to provide the discipline they crave.”

“It keeps us in order,” Angelo said, and the boys sitting around him agreed. “Our behavior at home starts to improve after a while. We won’t talk back to our parents as much. We won’t do things to get attention. Ever since I came here, I’ve calmed down, I’ve matured more.”

“It’s like being brainwashed,” a 10th grader named Chris Graham said slyly. Graham previously attended a co-ed Baptist school. “After being told to stop talking, sit down, it becomes part of your routine, so—”

“You’ll become a man,” finished Joshua Mozon, an 11th grader.

Banks was quick to point out that many of his students are being raised by their mothers and grandmothers, a common problem in neighborhoods like the South Bronx. Before coming to Eagle Academy, many of the boys had no male role models to look up to outside of their school.

“We play the role of big brothers and dads,” Banks said.

It’s why each student has a mentor, many of them members of 100 Black Men. They’re police officers, lawyers, doctors, businessmen and financial leaders, said Aaron Barnette, who runs the mentoring program. They serve as father figures for the students; the school even organizes a “mentor appreciation” event for Father’s Day.

“The biggest thing I see is what a mentor means to them,” Barnette said. “The kids don’t want to let them down.”

Mozon, 17, said he looks up to his mentor, a leader at the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. “He helps me with problems, with issues at home, anything. I go to my parents,” Joshua said, “and then I go to him.”

The absence of girls is a big part of the school’s environment. “What we’re finding is that girls are trying to be smart and boys are trying to be cool,” Banks said. “The boys won’t do their work because there’s these girls they’re thinking about.”

Not having girls in class, Angelo agreed, “makes us be more focused. In junior high school, the boys admitted to acting dumb and trying to impress girls. But what would we try to impress boys for?”

A lot of the ingredients at Eagle Academy match the ones touted by the small-schools movement. Eagle opened with start-up grants from the Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Mellon Foundation and others. Its classes are small; individual tutoring and attention are valued. And Eagle Academy just received its own resident college counselor to underscore its college-prep mission.

The boys compete in robotics and debate competitions. They take test-prep classes, do college prep on Saturdays and play sports. Their basketball team just made the state championships in their division. And they do service projects in the school’s community.

The after-school activities serve a dual purpose: They’re designed to keep the boys in school and off the streets in afternoons and even on weekends. Angelo is involved in several, including chess and self-defense classes. For a while he was on the debate team, and he recently made the baseball team.

He wants to go to college, and he wants to be a veterinarian someday. Ruiz worries about the years of college and graduate school the profession requires, but she hopes his school can deliver on its promises to help Angelo get started in a good four-year college.

“They have so many good programs in the school, here they have an opportunity to enjoy themselves and not get in trouble,” she said. “I’ve struggled all my life, I don’t want this for him. I tell him, ‘It’s hard on us, it’s always been hard on us, but you have choices.’”