Milwaukee's Backward March

November 12, 1990

The frustration, concern and good intentions that impelled Milwaukee educators to try a new kind of segregation for black schoolboys is understandable, but their final solution is not. Noting that many inner-city youth lack fathers at home and that some succumb to the lure of street gangs, Milwaukee's educators think the answer is to segregate the boys in "African American Immersion" schools keyed to a black male perspective. That seems like less of an answer than an exercise in isolation.

Minorities make up 70 percent of Milwaukee's public school population. Black boys, 28 percent of the total, account for 50 percent of the disciplinary suspensions. Fewer than 20 percent of those boys have C-average grades. And national figures show that nearly one in five black males in his 20s is behind bars, on probation or on parole.

"Afro-centric" curricula, discussed in many cities and experimented with in Baltimore, are designed to put balance and relevance into studies many urban black youths find stultifying because of their focus on European culture. But it makes no sense to replace one imbalance with another. Relevant history should reach all students, not selected groups who are then expected to fit in with others who are taught very differently.

Besides, a school system that fails to reach 80 percent of its black boys has serious problems of its own. Repairs are clearly in order, not mere removal of the blacks from regular classrooms.

Research suggests that a better approach is to get more black males into the classroom, as teachers and as volunteer teachers' helpers. That gives girls as well as boys, whites as well as blacks, a more rounded picture of the people who live in a diverse community. It offers positive role models for boys who lack them and helps provide, as in Washington's successful "Project 2000" now being emulated in Baltimore, better classroom discipline.

The benefits go to everyone. Teachers get more time to teach and students get a better environment in which to learn. Segregation treats the boys like perpetrators of Milwaukee's problems, rather than the victims. That's a wrong turn against those who need help the most.

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