ATLANTIC CITY — Inspired by the disparity he saw in the success of female students over male students, and thanks to legislation passed this summer, a local teacher hopes to open the state’s first single-gender charter school next year to help local boys succeed.
The Frederick Douglass Charter School for Boys is in the midst of the final phase of its application process this week, founder Ricardo Belgrave said. He said he received notification last Wednesday the school passed stage two of the application process.
Belgrave, of Atlantic City, said educators, politicians, clergy and community members have thrown their support behind him.
“They all say this is a need, especially in Atlantic City, where so many of our young men are falling victim to the criminal-justice system or dying in the street because they feel like they don’t have any opportunity,” Belgrave said.
The Rev. Collins Days Sr., pastor of Second Baptist Church, said Belgrave’s school is something Days has envisioned for a long time.
“I think it’s a tremendous idea to have the boys with not as many distractions and concentrate on issues that face the minority male in the community,” Days said.
He said those issues include gang violence, lack of proper role models or positive male figures, fighting with each other and “living on the margin of our community.”
“I’m so impressed with him, and I’m grateful for his leadership and vision for the community,” Days said. “And not just talk about it, but be about it.”
On Monday, Belgrave went to Trenton for the interview portion of his application. He will receive notification by the end of September on his school’s fate for the 2018-19 school year. If approved next month, Belgrave will begin developing a school board, facilities and funding.
Before this year, single-gender charter schools weren’t allowed in New Jersey. But in July, the state Board of Education passed rules allowing for the single-gender charter schools, as long as they can provide a compelling reason for limiting enrollment. There are currently two applications: Belgrave’s and a school in Paterson.
Belgrave believes his reason is compelling.
“I saw a disparity between males and females when it comes to academic growth and the number of males in special education,” he said.
Statewide, third- through eighth-grade PARCC data from spring 2016 show girls had a higher median score in English language arts and math than boys. Girls also were more likely to meet expectations in both subjects.
After implementing an all-boys pilot classroom in 2012 at the New York Avenue School where he teaches, Belgrave said he saw success.
“So I figured, why not develop a whole institution geared toward male learning styles?” Belgrave said.
While they are new for New Jersey, single-gender charter schools are already open around the country. Belgrave said he visited all-boys charter schools in Brooklyn, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. when developing his plans.
“There are definitely more and more happening each year, and people are starting to see this is a model that can work,” Belgrave said.
Allowing single-gender charter schools has long been a part of Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to expand educational opportunities in New Jersey. In 2011, he listed it as an item in his 2011 Education Reform Agenda.
Of the 86 charter schools in the state, three are in Atlantic County and four in Cumberland County. There are none in Ocean or Cape May counties. The Frederick Douglass School would would serve, in its first year, 180 students in kindergarten through second grade. The location of school is under development.
Belgrave, who grew up in Atlantic City, is working with the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City to develop an after-school program related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and entrepreneurship. In addition, Belgrave plans a mentor program with Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.
Much of the support for the school is linked to creating positive male relationships in the community. Councilman Jesse O. Kurtz said that for Atlantic City and other urban areas, the absence of fathers or positive male role models is detrimental.
In Atlantic City, 26 percent of households are a family with no husband present, which is more than the 23 percent that are married households, according to U.S. Census data.
“For young boys and young men to have both the involvement of their fathers as well as male mentors, role models, teachers, it reduces the rates of likelihood for being arrested, it increases the likelihood of graduating, pursuing a career,” Kurtz said. “It’s one of those things that has just tremendous results.”
Kurtz said that adding affordable education opportunities is a key component of revitalizing Atlantic City.
“So just as important as it is for the Hard Rock to open and someone to open the Revel, it’s equally important to add not only this school, but additional schools so parents have choices,” he said.