Hartford Planning To Relaunch Benjamin E. Mays Academy, Establish An All-Girls School Next Year
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB FRANK, Courant Staff Writer
March 09, 2008
Hartford is poised to jump headlong into single-gender education, with an all-boys school being planned for the fall and a girls' school to follow a year later.
They would become the first entirely single-gender public schools in the state, said Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
The city in the past had same-sex classrooms in a middle school and an elementary school, and the school board is considering resurrecting one of those now-defunct programs, the all-boys Benjamin E. Mays Academy formerly at Fox Middle School, and making it its own school.
The new academy, bearing the name of Martin Luther King Jr.'s mentor, would infuse African-American and Latino history and culture into the curriculum, and it would concentrate on building leadership skills.
Carving out a program and hiring a staff that concentrates on boys is not a luxury or a novelty but rather a critical necessity in Hartford, said Doug McCrory, co-chairman of the design team for the boys' school.
"This is a public-safety issue. The more kids we educate, the fewer kids we have on the street," said McCrory, a Democratic state representative from Hartford and vice principal at Bulkeley High School.
In a city conservative estimates say one out of every six children has at least one parent in prison, he said, the school system needs to help provide role models and an atmosphere keenly concentrated on education.
McCrory points to what he calls a "double achievement gap" facing city boys. There's the well known academic gap between Hartford children and their suburban peers, he said, and another lesser known gap between urban boys and girls.
Scores on standardized state tests and district statistics on suspensions, expulsions and the graduation rate bear him out.
Last school year, for example, 3,496 boys were suspended from Hartford schools — many multiple times — compared with 2,236 girls. Of 111 expulsions, 84 were boys and 27 were girls. By year's end, 733 students graduated from Hartford high schools: 331 boys and 402 girls.
The girls take up an extra row at graduation ceremonies, Weaver High School Principal Paul Stringer said. "I think it's because there are so few male role models and fathers in homes of kids growing up in poverty-stricken areas." He said a school dedicated to boys could help, and he offered to return to such a school after he retires at the end of this year to mentor the principal, teachers and students.
Single-gender schools and programs have grown in popularity in recent years since federal education officials concluded that the law permits them as long as there are equivalent programs offered for both genders within a year. This year, there are 366 single-gender public schools and programs nationwide, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.
In Georgia, according to the Associated Press, the entire school district of rural Greene County is set to transform its schools into single-gender schools in a desperate attempt to reverse years of lagging test scores, soaring dropout rates and a high number of teenage pregnancies.
When he taught for about 10 years at the Mays program at Fox Middle School, McCrory said he and other male teachers became surrogate fathers for many of the students, attending their sporting events and counseling them as parents might.
Hilda Nieves credits Mays Academy with keeping her boys on track when their life at home fell apart.
"When my kids were in the program, I was divorcing my husband," Nieves said. Her husband was drinking a lot and beating her, she said. "He put me in the hospital for two weeks and he ended up in jail for two and a half years."
As Nieves recalls, McCrory took her boys aside and told them not to follow their father's path. "Mr. McCrory told my sons that they can do better than their father if they stay in school and they learn. They got the message, and they stayed in school."
Alan Daley, a Mays Academy graduate who went on to graduate from the University of Connecticut, is so grateful for the attention he got from McCrory and his other teachers that he is dedicated to the idea of getting his teaching certificate and working at the new school.
"It was the most important stage in my development," Daley said. "You start noticing girls, and it's a distraction. At Mays, that was less of a distraction. Males — a lot of what they do wrong is motivated by what the girls think. You haul off and hit somebody because you think it will impress a girl. Being a boys' cluster took the competition for the females away."
Daley also reflects on the ritual of wearing a shirt and tie at Mays Academy as "hugely important" because he and his peers felt proud in the clothing, particularly when they went to museums and college campuses.
"People judge you by the clothing you wear," he said. "We'd go to college campuses, and the security guards knew we weren't there to go to the dorms and steal things. We have stereotypes that are naturally attached to us as black men. It boosts your self-esteem when you break that stereotype."
District officials have not yet presented plans to the school board for approval because some of the details are still being worked out, said Christina M. Kishimoto, director of school redesign. For example, it is not yet clear where the school will be for its first year. The district may find room in one of its schools, she said, or it may rent space in another building, such as the Artists Collective on Albany Avenue.
Both the boys' and the girls' schools would likely include grades 7-12 and ultimately have about 650 students each. Next school year, the boys' school would start with 80 to 100 boys in seventh grade. Then, in August 2009, the boys would add an eighth grade and the girls school would open.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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