In the spring of 1990, frustrated with criticism of his board’s decision to open two public schools (one elementary, one middle) geared exclusively to needs of black boys, then Milwaukee School Superintendent Robert Peterkin vigorously defended his position: “A population is literally dying!”
Peterkin had in mind grim statistics: the leading cause of death among young black males (one out of 20) is murder; one out of every four is in prison; 25 percent dropout of high school; the unemployment rate is 22 percent (double that of young white men); they are three times as likely to die of cancer and of AIDS (than young white men).
The portent of this profile for American communities, particularly cities with large black populations such as Baltimore, is alarming by any measure–it threatens the community’s stability, saps its strength and stultifies progress.
“We can wring our hands,” Peterkin said, “or we can try something new.” Some critics feel the idea is not new merely racial segregation all over again; others, that new or not, it’s the only hope. Jawanza Kunjufu, a black educational consultant, says, “If you intervene in the third or fourth grade, you have a chance.” Whatever the pros or the cons, the Milwaukee experience is bringing serious questions into sharp focus in Baltimore: What is the size of the problem? Do black males really have “special needs”? Is the creation of these separate schools an appropriate answer? Must their curriculum be, as some advocates insist, “Afro Centric”? Are they even legal?