What works for boys

George Jackson Academy students (Photo by Susan Siegel)

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Paul Glader writes about efforts in New York City to keep boys, and especially minority boys, engaged in school. The city’s plan for the future will likely include more all-boys schools.

The story highlights the fact that in New York City there are more than twice as many boys as girls in special education. But I was surprised to see no mention of a recent report on single-sex schools serving primarily Black and Latino boys. The idea of single-sex schools is not new. Yet, the idea of a public school for boys of color is something of an anomaly.

New York University professor Pedro Noguera, c0-author of “Theories of Change among Single-Sex Schools for Black and Latino Boys,” was the featured speaker at a panel of education experts who spoke on the topic in late April.  Hosted by the George Jackson Academy, a private upper-elementary and middle school in Queens for boys in grades four through eight, the morning meeting at NYU examined different components of a rigorous education — instruction, leadership, curriculum, after-school activities and their effects on students.

Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University (Photo by Susan Sawyers)

The report found that all-boys schools create safe environments in which boys can learn. An emphasis on building strong relationships among the boys, teachers, and staff proved important to engaging the boys in the learning process. “Relational engagement was the strongest predictor of achievement,” said Noguera.

The study looked at seven schools that vary in structure (public, private and charter); five are located in New York, one is in Atlanta, Ga., and one is in Portland, Ore. The authors found that all-boys schools nurtured their students’ social and emotional development; challenged stereotypes about African-American and Latino male identity; infused strong academic expectations and college preparation as part of the boys’ social identity; and made strong efforts to strengthen basic academic skills before moving on to more challenging offerings.

However, Noguera, who co-wrote the report with Edward Fergus, also said that the push toward single-sex schools for low-income boys is “an intervention in search of a theory” — and he gave the report a subtitle to that effect. Unlike all-girls schools, which are based on the theory of expanding gender role options for girls, all-boys schools are not based on a “shared understanding” of what boys actually need.

“The problems we see with our boys,” said Noguera, “only get worse when we see what’s happening with our men. The boys become men who are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. They are trapped in low-wage jobs, incarcerated or murdered.”

I hadn’t seen high school graduation rates disaggregated by gender until today. As Glader’s story in the Wall Street Journal points out, there’s a great disparity in New York City. “According to state data,” he wrote, “only 52.6 percent of boys graduated and 65.5 percent of girls graduated from high school in New York City last year.”  Clearly, there’s room for improvement and single-sex schools for Black and Latino boys, like Eagle Academy or George Jackson Academy, may help ratchet up the numbers.

Susan Sawyers