Parents of students at have expressed concern over a program designed to help close the achievement gap among African-American boys, on grounds that it has not been made open to all students.
Selected African-American boys at the school have been taking part in seminars and other activities in a program called “MAN UP,” which includes lessons in self-improvement, empowerment and responsibility.
According to Principal Shawn Ashworth, the program is an effort to address the relatively high rate of discipline referrals among black male students, and to boost their scores on Maryland State Assessment tests. She said it is not a racially exclusive group.
But parents said that while they believe Ashworth is well intentioned, the group has only increased racial tensions at the school because white students are feeling left out. Parents have issued complaints to Ashworth and the Board of Education, as well as the Anne Arundel County Office of Equity and Human Relations.
“You can’t have a program that’s race based,” said Tracy Mathews, whose daughter attends seventh grade at the school. “It has to be need based.”
Mathews was so concerned about the program that she testified against it before the school board Wednesday.
Ashworth, who is black, said in an email to Patch that the program has always been open to everyone.
“The program never excluded students, it just focused on [African-Amercan] students—students in the achievement gap as well as with the highest number of referrals,” she said.
In addition to the seminars, about 10 students have also had group meetings with the Men of Character student group at . An all-day MAN UP conference is tentatively scheduled for April 27.
Mathews and other parents have contended that Ashworth only advertised the seminars and meetings as being open to every student once parents raised concerns. Mathews said students of other races only learned about the program when some black classmates were being removed from classes. The group is not advertised in the school newsletters and meetings are not promoted on the school’s public address system, they said.
"I was outraged when I heard about it, but thought maybe it wasn't real," said Michele Rafsky, a parent of a seventh-grade boy at Arundel Middle.
Rafksy and other parents said feelings of jealousy flared earlier this year when some black students bragged about their participation.
“I further learned that the some of the children in this group are ‘rubbing it’ in the faces of the other children that cannot belong, [and] that they are having treats like Cinnabons and muffins/doughnuts etc.” said Jen Gruber, the parent of two Arundel Middle School students, in an email.
The program gained relevance this year after the local chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint against Anne Arundel County Public Schools for a high rate of discipline referrals among African-American students. The U.S. Department of Education said last week it would investigate the complaint.
Ashworth wrote a letter to parents last month outlining the purpose of the group and insisting it was open to all, though she acknowledged it was focused on the unique needs of African-American boys.
“The MAN UP seminars are open to all students at Arundel Middle School,” Ashworth wrote. “They have been designed by our school counselors to support, encourage, and empower young males, especially African-American males, to reach their full potential academically, vocationally, economically, socially, and personally.”
In an email to Patch, she said she did not believe the program was divisive.
“Actually, because of the program the number of referrals for students as a whole, and specifically for African American students, has decreased,” she said.
The online search of the term "Man Up" shows that it is often used in programs to encourage students, and many of those programs are geared toward African-Americans.
The historically black Howard University, for instance, has a "Man Up" club to encourage the graduation of male students in its communications school.
FOX News anchor Kelly Wright also founded a mentoring group for young people in Hagerstown called Man Up!
Ashworth said the school still hopes to hold an all-day conference with three speakers from the community on April 27. The conference will feature sessions on the important of education, fiscal responsibility and being a role model.