Same-sex Schools Aren’t the Solution to Black Oppression

By Chioma Oruh, Ph.D.

On Friday, September 22, 2017, the US Department of Education (DOE) issued a press release rescinding an important guidance of the Obama-era Title IX issued in April 2014 that required schools to investigate and address sexual assault and sexual misconduct. These newly released guidelines by US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have been met with harsh criticism. For example, former Vice President Joe Biden, who along with President Barack Obama co-founded the group It’s On Us aimed at curbing sexual violence on college campuses, noted, “Now the Department of Education under new leadership is working to roll back the protections [from sexual discrimination] under Title IX that we worked so hard to put in place.”

Sofie Karesek, co-founder of the organization End Campus Rape, released a statement accusing Secretary DeVos and the DOE’s Head of the Civil Rights Division Candace Jackson of “protect[ing] those who ‘grab’ by the genitals and brag about it – and make college campuses a safer place for them.” Worthy of proper study and review, the changes to Title IX, which protects more than just issues of sexual assault, also brings front and center gender-based discrimination in the school system against girls.

In fact, since June 23, 1972, when Title IX became law, schools have been required to provide girls with equal athletic opportunities and all federal programs that receive federal funding and all aspects of the school’s educational system and is described by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as the lynchpin of 40 years of efforts to promote and establish gender equity in schools – which benefit both boys and girls. The same year that Title IX went into law the ACLU also established the Women’s Rights Project, which recently took a position against sex-segregated schools and worked to ensure public schools promote gender equity and ensure that both girls and boys receive equal educational opportunities.

Amidst these controversial changes to Title IX by the DOE, and in reflection of the original intention of the law, I have mixed feelings when reading the article’s musing on the effectiveness of the all-boy Ron Brown Preparatory High School entitled “A new attempt to answer an old question: Does single-sex education work?” by Emmauel Felton. Since its opening a year ago, the ACLU issued a critical report entitled Leaving Girls Behind citing the public high school and other projects of the $20 million Obama-era inspired initiative called Empowering Males of Color as discriminatory against girls of color, even as the then-Chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS) Kaya Henderson, an African-American woman, noted in an NPR interview in 2016 the all-boy school as a favorite project of hers.

According to former Chancellor Henderson, the school was founded to address the dismal graduation rates and the lower rate of change in improvements for African-American and Latino boys in the robust economy of Washington, DC.  Also, based on data, Ron Brown Prep was justified as a sincere effort to improve outcomes for young men that typically struggle academically in typical high schools and was founded on a principle of restorative justice that counteracts high suspension rates that impact academic performance.  Ms. Henderson also noted in the interview that DC has Excel Academy, an all-girl public charter school founded in 2008, which has not been met with the same amount of criticism as Ron Brown Prep.

In reading Felton’s article estimating the academic success of Ron Brown Prep, I am immediately struck by the kickoff image of rehearsals with the all-male casting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to be performed by the students. I wonder: what are the assumptions being made about the mixed-gender schools? And what are the root causes of high suspension rates, of which, recent reports also show that black girls also have high rates of suspension? The article also anchors its analysis in Afrocentrism and cites that all-boys public schools in Detroit dating back to the 1990s also used this strategy to address the vulnerability of black boys. As a well-studied Africanist, I also wonder how a Black Studies or civics course at the Ron Brown school would tackle issues being debated in academia around the erasure of prominent women of the Pan African Movement or Civil Rights Era?

I will say this firmly: I am not interested in participating in the on-going internet-musings that result in the oppression Olympics between black men and women in the United States.  From my vantage point, African-Americans as a whole are severely oppressed and gender-based symptoms of the wide-ranging disparities in healthcare, high rate of unemployment, higher rates of evictions, lack of wealth and limited access to education are only indicators of a more comprehensive phenomenon.  So to this end, my reservations about same-sex public schools are rooted in not being convinced they resolve any particular oppression. Also, the indicators of success are problematic and the ideology supporting their existence sound limiting.

Felton’s article notes success for Ron Brown Prep to include: 1) only issuing six suspensions, two-thirds of which had been handed out to just two students, 2) implementation of a restorative justice system with respect to District policy on mandatory infractions involving drugs or weapons, 3) over 85% re-enrollment and 4) a school community of administrators and teachers that are majority African American men. Although it is too early to have test scores as a metric of success, the article concludes with optimism that the school is on the path of these types of successes.

As a mother of two young black boys, I conclude with less enthusiasm.  I cannot see how any existing same-sex school has curved the overall high rates of dropout and suspension for both black boys and girls. Also, having first sent both of my sons to Afrocentric schools at the start of their education journey and they are both now in public school due to the lack of adequate support for children with disabilities (in my case, autism spectrum disorders) and the low commitment to rectify this, I am also not as hopeful that an Afrocentric curriculum adequately addresses issues like sexism and ableism.

And lastly, I am also cautious, even if this one school performs well, it will not: 1) resolve issues of school equity, 2) promote individualized learning standards and 3) provide a robust curriculum that includes lessons such as compassion or other social emotional indicators in a sterile learning incubator.