Once seen as sexist and outdated, the all-male educational model has been resurrected to serve New York City’s poorest boys, a group feared to be more likely to go to prison than to college.
The Eagle Academy for Young Men was the city’s first all-boys public school in more than 30 years when it opened in the Bronx nine years ago.
“It’s a movement to try and save our sons,” said David C. Banks, the founding principal of the first Eagle Academy, who is now president of the Eagle Academy Foundation, the network’s fundraising arm.
Banks just opened his fifth Eagle Academy, in Harlem, and hopes to open two more New York City schools for a total of seven serving 4,000 students, all in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Aimed at the most vulnerable student population, low-income boys, the Eagle Academies have shown above-average results. The four-year graduation rate in 2012 for the Bronx Eagle Academy — the only location that’s been around long enough to have had a graduating class — was 67.5 percent. The citywide average that year was 64.7 percent but only 59.9 percent for boys.
Graduates have gone on to colleges including Syracuse, Skidmore and Fordham. Banks said as many as 4,000 students apply for every 100 Eagle Academy slots at schools in Brooklyn, Queens, Newark and Harlem.
Banks said the school’s performance comes despite a challenging student body: virtually all black or Hispanic, most from low-income families, and a higher-than-average special-needs population. And, of course, all male.
He says he has been invited to start Eagle Academies in other cities in the United States and beyond but would prefer to help others start their own all-boys schools.
Single-sex education has long been available to wealthy children in private schools, but it remains controversial in U.S. public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union argues in its “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign that efforts to separate the sexes in the classroom are often rooted in outdated gender stereotypes. ACLU representatives did not respond to calls for comment about all-boys schools.
Michael Kimmel, a Stony Brook University sociologist whose work on gender studies has been cited by the ACLU, said research has not proved that single-sex schools exert “an independent positive effect on education outcomes.”
But he said anecdotal evidence supports schools for at-risk boys such as Eagle Academy. “They are obviously doing some real good,” he said.
Like the British boarding schools they are modeled on, each Eagle Academy is divided into four houses — at the Bronx campus, they’re Obama House, Malcolm X House, Roberto Clemente House and Che Guevara House.
Students win points for their houses by scoring well on tests or by performing community service; the points are a matter of pride for the houses.
“I feel proud I’m in Obama House, the first black president of the United States,” said eighth-grader Elijah Landsman, who wanted to make it clear that his house is outpacing the others. “Right now Obama’s in the lead; I’d just like to say that.”
School days begin with a town hall meeting where students share burdens such as a mother’s health scare and then recite “Invictus,” the Victorian-era poem about overcoming adversity that proclaims, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
Donations from corporate and philanthropic supporters help pay for such extras as after-school programs, mentoring and trips to visit colleges.
Juan Rijfkogel, a 2008 Eagle Academy graduate who now works as a derivative analyst at Credit Suisse, said the mentoring helped him succeed — and the all-boys environment helped, too.
“At that age, hormones are buzzing,” he said.
Elijah, the eighth-grader, said he’d rather go to school with girls, “but my mother says there is less distraction.”
Of the city’s 20 single-sex public schools, 19 opened during the administration of outgoing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I). They include girls’ schools such as the Young Women’s Leadership Schools, a network that’s parallel to Eagle Academy.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio championed educational programs such as universal pre-kindergarten during this year’s campaign but did not address single-sex education.
Single-sex believers include Melanie Harmon, whose sixth-grade son, Aaron, just started at the Harlem Eagle Academy after struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at his previous school.
At an opening ceremony at her son’s school, all the adult men in the room were asked to stand up and show the boys how to tie a tie.
Harmon said Aaron is learning to focus without the added distraction of girls. She added: “They teach them to become responsible. They’re teaching him basically how to grow into a man.”