Editorial: Not sold on single-gender school plan

May. 18, 2013 @ 05:39 PM

Is it worth it? Is it wise?

Can a district already so strapped for cash that it has to scrounge to keep teacher assistants on the payroll one more year afford to launch a multi-million dollar experiment to save the boys of Durham?

Last week, The Herald-Sun reported about a proposed partnership between Durham Public Schools and Maureen Joy Charter School that would establish two single-gender schools aimed at potential first-generation college kids.

Truly, it’s a well-intended idea and we’re impressed that DPS might be willing to collaborate so closely with one of the charter schools that have been seen as a mortal enemy of the district in recent years.

But is it worth it? Is it wise?

When Superintendent Eric Becoats first talked about the idea of just an all-male school last year, with plans to focus on black students from low income families without the distractions that come from trying to learn around girls, it seemed like an idea worth exploring.

But in the months since then, the concept has morphed and ballooned in potential expense. Due to legal concerns about student equity – if a girl wanted to get into the all-boys academy and succeeded in winning a lottery seat, DPS would have to let her in – administrators decided to make one school for boys and one for girls.

Now we’re looking at perhaps as much as $12 million get the schools off the ground, including the cost of fixing and expanding W.G. Pearson Middle School’s campus.

Is it worth it? Is it wise?

Proponents like DPS board member Minnie Forte-Brown argue, emphatically, that it is absolutely worth it to build a school that lifts up children who are stuck in what she describes as a “prison pipeline,” in a population of students who perform at the lowest levels but are among those most commonly slapped with long-term school suspensions.

But it’s an awful lot of money to throw at a problem 350 students at a time, with no guarantee of return on investment, especially when you have to divert part of those resources to a girls’ school for which there is no clear demand in the community.

Omega Curtis Parker thinks it’s worth it because “we don’t know that it’s not going to work.”

But how wise is it to invest so much on the chance that this might be the silver bullet that suddenly fixes a problem that is nothing new to Durham or, indeed, other urban areas throughout the United States?

Why not give all the other projects – the retooled Southern School of Energy and Sustainability, the Moving in the Middle programs, the new magnet schools, the Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy – more time to prove themselves?

Always chasing the next new thing, even in the name of collaboration, can be expensive and unwise.

And, right now, we’re hard pressed to agree that it’s worth it.