A Gender-Specific Boost for Newark Schools?

David Banks, CEO of successful all-boys public schools in New York City, wants to open a similar school in Newark, the largest school district in New Jersey. Banks says that a gender-specific education is the key to keeping boys in school and our of gangs.

Students at an Eagle Academy school library. Scholastic, Inc. on Flickr

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This piece originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

David Banks is a nationally known name in the school reform movement—the father of all-boy public education in New York City, and a tireless cheerleader for the differences his schools make for black and Latino males.

Now Banks is bringing his single-gender ideas to New Jersey.

Newark superintendent Cami Anderson announced last week that Banks’ Bronx-based Eagle Academy for Young Men will open an all-boys school next year as part of her reorganization of New Jersey’s largest district.

It’s the first foray of strictly single-gender public schools into New Jersey, although there is a scattering of sex-restricted classrooms across the state.

The movement has grown nationwide in the past decade. There are now more than 100 schools in Datyon, Ohio, Houston and other cities. Another 400 public schools offer single-gender classrooms.

It’s a prospect that energizes Banks, who founded Eagle Academy and is now president and CEO of its overseeing foundation. He also happens to be a Rutgers graduate.

“There’s a great need in Newark,” Banks said yesterday in an hour-long interview. “And while we get asked to open schools all around the country, I think there is something special happening in Newark.”

Eagle Academy opened its first school in the Bronx in 2004 with 100 freshmen. The school now has 400 students, and last year graduated its fourth senior class. There were 5,000 applications for its 100 open seats in the coming year, Banks said.

In the meantime, the program has added schools in Brooklyn and Queens, each of them slated to grow to 600 students. “By the time we come to Newark with our fourth school and it grows to capacity, we’ll have 2,400 students,” Banks said.

Banks is quick to pitch to the value of all-boys education in general and his program in particular, one that includes heavy parental involvement, extended hours and active mentoring. The school week runs 12 extra hours, including four hour on Saturday.

Eagle Academy adds in elements that Banks said work especially well with the boys: Uniforms, structured competitions between “houses” inside the schools and other rituals. He describes how students in each grade in his schools have different uniforms, down to the ties.

“The rituals and ceremonies are a huge part of what we do at Eagle Academies,” he said. “It’s one of the things that draws too many of these kids to gangs, but while gangs do it from a negative perspective, we do it in the positive.”

One thing that Banks stresses is that Eagle Academy is not a charter school. Unlike charters, which are authorized by the state, Eagle Academy will work within the Newark Public Schools, its teachers assigned and evaluated like any other Newark school teachers, Banks said. All the teachers will be member of the Newark Teachers Union.

Banks said Eagle Academy will get the same funding as other Newark public schools, save for maybe an extra $1,000 or so per child that he can raise through the foundation to pay for the extended time or other extra programs. He also cited the prospect of additional money from foundations and others, including the $100 million Facebook gift.

“But there is a lot of angst around charters these days,” he said. “It is very important that we not be described as a charter school.”

How the school will operate and who it will accept as students make that distinction a blurry line, though, with Banks saying that a charter-style lottery is likely if there are more applicants than seats. But he maintains it will not be selective.

“We’re for the average boy in the neighborhood,” he said.

There are always the legal issues, too, with questions as to how a single-gender school will sidestep state code and statute that prohibits any discrimination in enrollment.

The federal government opened the way for single-gender enrollment in 2006 with new regulations that permitted such schools under certain conditions. But the issue is still under legal challenge across the country. Among the conditions are that the programs meet specific and distinct need and also be provided to the other gender in the same community.

For Newark, an all-girls school led by the separate Young Women’s Leadership Academy, also in New York City, is also slated under Anderson’s reorganization plan, but not until 2013-2014.

“If you have all boys, you have to have all girls,” Banks said. “So from a legal standpoint, that should leave us in good shape.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Education said the department had yet to take a position on the new school, nor had it been asked to.

“We’re encouraged anytime a district develops an innovative solution to support student learning or address an area of need,” said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director.

“Regarding the legality question, we’d need to look at the specifics of their program before responding,” he said.

The state has a little time, since even Eagle Academy’s location is yet to be determined. Newark officials said it would likely go into one of the district’s vacated spaces following the planned reorganization, which includes closing six school buildings.

“The details are being sorted out as we speak,” Banks said. “We are still putting together the system and how it will all roll out.”

But it has been a long courtship for Banks with Newark, starting a year ago when the school was first proposed. It culminated with a welcoming event earlier this month at Metropolitan Baptist Church, which will provide some of the mentoring for students.

Banks now says his organization is ready to get started, beginning with a four-week summer program in July for incoming students.

“Our plan is still to start in July and kick off in September,” he said.

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