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Principals: Single-gender spaces can boost college readiness

When Principal Jonathan Foy wanted to improve college readiness for Eagle Academy’s 500 male students, he added more advanced classes and staffed a college counseling office.

Atleast two Brooklyn schools have done the same, and more, in a similar quest to boost achievement: At the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, boys can take field trips and converse with their male teachers after school through the “Young Men’s Association.”

And one of the educational capstones of Bedford Academy’s curriclum is Perspectives in Leadership, an elective taught by the principal to help male students to think about their roles in the world.

The motivation behind each of these programs is similar, the high schools’ principals say. It’s the knowledge that only a small fraction of the city’s black and Latino youth, particularly young men, are graduating from high school on time and ready for college.

The Brooklyn high schools are among the 80-some schools that city officials and prominent education researchers say are already making strides towards solving the decades-old problem which has received new attention with the advent of the new college readiness progress metric and the mayor’s Young Men’s Initiative.

Last week all three of them were awarded $10,000 by the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, a national nonprofit, for their progress addressing the educational needs of young men of color. And two of them are among the 81 schools eligible to apply for the city’s Expanded Success Initiative.

The principals told GothamSchools they think one key to tackling this problem is creating single-gender spaces where young men are asked to think critically about their actions and plan for their futures.

At the Urban Assembly School For Law And Justice, Principal Shannon Curran said she started focusing on young men in 2007, two years after the school opened, when she noticed that many female students were outperforming male students.

“We were trying to think about what kinds of supports we need to engage young men in school more,” she said. “We really put a lot of effort into creating some special programs for our young men so they can feel more connected to the schools in different ways.”

Curran has tried to create opportunities for the male students to get extra attention when they need it, in the form of an after school program, a mentoring program with local business leaders, and two single-gender advisory periods.

These program are introduced to male students before the school year even starts, when the school holds an overnight “Young Men’s Retreat” at a Queens community center. There, male teachers lead workshops on identity and community.

“We really felt that the boys were much more connected with school,” she said. “What we really looked at was attendance, how many of our young men are taking advantage of summer programs, after school programs, advanced classes, and then getting to do some of these more engaging activities.”

Curran’s school was not one of the 81 invited by the city to apply for the Expanded Success Initiative, one of several prongs of the city’s the Bloomberg administration’s Young Men’s Initiative, which is trying to improve educational and social outcomes for male black and Latino students.

But Ron Walker, the executive director of COSEBOC, which honored three city schools last week, said the Urban Assembly school stood out to him and the other judges, which included Pedro Noguera, Rosa Smith, the former director of the Schott Foundation, and several former school district superintendents and non-profit leaders from around the country.

“We talked to students, [and] you could hear from their conversations with us that their administrators knew them well were encouraging them. You could tell that there was a rigorous education. You could tell that they felt their college-going efforts were really supported,” Walker said. “We saw the level of care and nurturing about what it takes to get into college and what it takes to get into it without debt.”

Josh Thomases, a deputy chancellor overseeing the program, said the 40 schools that the Department of Education will select this summer from its applicant pool for the initiative could become models for how to graduate young men college ready — after they get an extra push from the city.

“What they’ve done is figured out how to graduate the vast majority of their high-poverty black and Latino boys,” he said. “We’re taking the best schools that have figured graduating out and saying, work with us to figure out graduating college-ready.”

Eagle Academy, another award winner and an Expanded Success applicant, is an all boys school. So rather than worry about gender-segregating students within the school, Foy said he has focused on improving the academic offerings. In his application for the initiative, he said he is emphasizing the need for more math coaches and other teaching positions that could make class sizes smaller and help students who need remedial instruction when they enter school.

Adofo Mohammed, the principal of Bedform Academy High School in Central Brooklyn, said the key to his school’s successes has also been creating boys-only spaces where students can think about their identities in relation to their communities and professional goals. His schools boasts strong test scores, thanks in part to intensive, day-long Saturday study sessions leading up to Regents week. But it also offers a “male empowerment” elective on precisely those issues of identity and purpose that he said can leave young men feeling confused or uninterested in school.

“I teach the class. It’s predicated on the full development of our male students, their social acumen and their need to have a sense of urgency academically,” he said. We want them to be socially, economically, politically upwardly mobile.”

To accomplish this, Mohammed brought a group of students to D.C. for the Professional Black Caucus last year, and a forum on the concept of empowerment at Howard University. He also invited motivational speakers to campus, including Jayson Williams, a basketball player who served time in prison for his part in the shooting death of a limousine driver but says he has now reformed.

Walker said Bedford Academy and the other schools have not completely overcome the challenges before them, but they nonetheless should be viewed as models for how public schools can start to address the achievement gap.

“These school are working to strengthen the cultural identity of these students,” he said. “All exemplified that they believe that boys and young men of color can and are succeeding. They believe it across the school community, and they have opportunities for these young men to demonstrate on a daily basis how to succeed and what to do about success.”

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