Merlene Davis: Lexington academies set a high bar for black males

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 18, 2012 

When my husband and I were having a bathroom renovated recently, our plumber brought his son along.

Being the mother of two boys, I started talking with the son, asking how he was doing in school.

His father interjected that his son was not doing well at all. He said the boy was messing up academically and behaviorally. I do believe I heard my son groan from his room. He knew exactly what was about to happen.

I questioned the boy, asking what subjects he had problems with and what the problems were.

First, he said he just didn't get math. Then, he said the teacher didn't like him.

I know I then heard my son softly shut his door and lock it. He had survived what the boy was about to endure.

I took the sixth-grader away from his father and planted him in front of a computer and found some math-practice sites. Within minutes, I discovered he wasn't math-challenged at all. He knew what was going on. He just wasn't inspired to do the work.

That's when I suggested his father look into the Carter G. Woodson Academy, which will open at Crawford Middle School in the fall.

It is a program for boys that stresses achievement and preparation for college. Had my boys been of the correct age, I would have crawled on bad knees to get them there.

Unfortunately, Woodson is not accepting applications for the coming school year. It has reached its capacity for 100 boys, in sixth through ninth grades.

I almost cried. This young boy is a perfect candidate for a program that would have pushed and inspired him to do his best. Fortunately, some students will benefit from its unique structure this year. That boy, and others, have the chance to benefit from the academy as it grows.

Woodson is patterned after the successful Black Males Working Academy at First Baptist Church Bracktown, which meets on Saturdays and has been credited with marked increases in standardized test scores for its participants.

Roszalyn Akins, founder of BMW and Woodson's dean of students, said Fayette County administrators found test scores for those attending BMW were 30 points higher in math and 26 points higher in reading than other black students in Fayette.

"We have seen the number of kids in the principal's office decline, and those in special education are coming up to grade level," she said

Plus, the average ACT score for Kentucky black students is 15.8. For BMW students, it is 22.4. "We had our first 32 this year," she said.

"We offer them high expectations, exposure and experiences," Akins said. "Because of those things we have done with the boys for the past seven years, we have seen remarkable improvement."

Those findings are similar to ones author and national education consultant Jawanza Kunjufu wrote about in his new book, There is Nothing Wrong with Black Students, to be released March 1.

In it, he highlights two schools, one in New York and one in Chicago, that are all-male. The students in the New York school outperform their peers on state-wide exams. The school in Chicago boasts that all its graduates are accepted in four-year colleges.

Kunjufu has visited Lexington a couple of times — last in December 2010 — to speak with parents and educators. He said peer pressure has surpassed nearly every other influence in the lives of young black males.

I believe him, and so do Akins and Jaynae Laine, director of Woodson Academy.

"I commend Fayette County for thinking out of the box to meet the needs," Akins said.

The need lies with boys like my plumber's son. There is nothing wrong with his intellect. Something else is going on.

Laine said she and Akins had visited the all-male school in Chicago, as well as one in Atlanta. She has seen the positive results.

There are critics, Laine said, who don't believe enough data exists to embrace the gender-specific programs.

"But the traditional classroom is not working for African-American males and Hispanic males," she said. "We'll be able to provide research that says it does work."

Woodson, which unlike BMW is an all-day, five-days-a-week program, is open to all male students in Fayette County, Laine said.

Like The Learning Center at Linlee, Opportunity Middle College and Locust Trace AgriScience Farm, the academy will give parents another option for the education of their children for whom the usual classroom might not be working, she said.

Akins said Elizabethtown and Covington schools are looking to start similar programs. She said parents interested in the model should look into the BMW program at Bracktown to get a feel for what the more intensive academy would be like. A new round of applications will be accepted next year.

At Woodson, the rigorous curriculum will be taught through the lens of black history and culture, and students will be required to dress in uniforms of Navy sport coats, white button-down shirts, gray slacks and a purple tie, or casual uniforms of khaki pants, a sweater vest and Polo shirt.

Although the program will start out with sixth- through ninth-graders, another grade will be added each year until the program goes through 12th grade.

The plan is for the program to be housed at Crawford, with its own entry and office space.

Middle school students will be eligible to play sports at Crawford, and high school students can play at their home school.

On Aug. 5, Bracktown will host a communitywide convocation for the students who will attend Woodson Academy. Students will be given their jackets, a high school diploma and a college diploma.

"They can hang them on their walls and fill them in as it comes," she said.

"We set the bar high for the kids to do well," Akins said. "We are creating a brotherhood of strong men."

Lord knows we need a few more of those.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: @reportmerle. Blog:

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