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African-American Immersion Schools Aim to Help Failing Students

VICTOR Berger Elementary School, on the North Side of this lakefront city, is surrounded by a cyclone fence and a moat-like expanse of asphalt playground. A tardy student standing outside the locked schoolhouse door reaches up to push a button. The small black girl identifies herself and shoves the heavy door open as the lock is released. Once inside she meets only students of her own race. This is one of 19 inner-city schools left segregated 15 years after court-ordered desegregation.

Next fall Berger will become one of two city schools designated as African-American Immersion Schools. ``The major emphasis at our school next year is going to be a multicultural curriculum,'' says principal Josephine Mosley.

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Originally to be exclusively for black boys, the Immersion Schools - Berger and a neighboring middle school - are now opening enrollment to both female and white students to avoid legal challenges.

The focus will be on an ``Afrocentric'' curriculum, gender-specific activities, and building students' self-esteem.

More than 80 percent of black high school males in Milwaukee have grade-point averages of D or below and 95 percent of all students expelled from the schools are African-Americans, according to Kenneth Holt, who is organizing the two new schools. ``It's not rational to say that what we're doing now is working for African-Americans,'' Mr. Holt says.

The plan has created widespread controversy. Critics charge that it amounts to resegregation. But Ms. Mosley dismisses that claim with a simple fact: ``They can't resegregate; this school was already segregated.''

Asked about his decision to support the Immersion Schools, former Superintendent Robert S. Peterkin says, ``This was tough for me. I've been desegregating schools for 25 years. But it's the right thing to do because everything else we've tried has not had an impact.''

Others disagree. ``Institutionalizing racism is not all right,'' says Doris Stacy, a former school-board member who voted against the proposal. ``It's immoral, it's wrong.''

The goal of the Immersion Schools is to create an atmosphere and curriculum that will motivate black students to excel. ``We're trying to prepare them for the mainstream of society,'' Dr. Peterkin says. ``The United States of America has allowed the situation in our inner cities to grow so bad that in fact African-American males right now are isolated and segregated from the remainder of society.''

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Creating these types of specialized programs is the proper role for a school board and superintendent, Peterkin says. Working together, the community, the school board, and the superintendent should come up with a solution.

Some people in the district are concerned that the planning process for the schools has been rushed. If the program begins in September, as planned, it will be too watered down and unorganized to prove effective, some argue. ``What is about to emerge now is a hoax,'' says Walter Farrell, a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Daniel Drake, community superintendent of the area including the two schools, wrote a letter in May recommending that the district delay implementing the program until September 1992. Dr. Drake says most of his concerns have since been allayed and the schools are scheduled to open this fall.

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