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School stressing black culture draws ire of white neighbors

A police helicopter flew overhead and squad cars circled the streets around Malcolm X Academy as Gaidi Harris escorted his 10-year-old son past three guards into the school.

"I prepared him for this," Harris said. "All I can tell him is not everybody grew up with parents like you did. Not everybody knows how to deal with people different from themselves."

Harris' son, Amir Bonner, is a student at the academy, one of Detroit's three mostly male schools with a curriculum focused on black culture and designed to provide students with positive role models.

The academy, which serves 450 pupils from kindergarten through sixth grade, has been the target of threats and protests since a decision to move it to a predominantly white neighborhood. School officials said special security measures were needed when the academy opened at its new quarters Sept. 29.

"I read it in the paper. There it was _ "Malcolm X Academy to open,' " said Mike Stevenson, a resident of the school's working class neighborhood.

"What is this, "Malcolm X Academy?' Why him? He was a racist. That's what he taught, what he believed. Why couldn't they have named it after Martin Luther King, or anyone?"

Deborah McGriff, schools superintendent, said she understands too clearly the reason for the opposition _ racism.

At an August meeting that drew about 500 people, McGriff was outshouted and booed when she tried to explain the school's purpose. The previous week, swastikas were spray-painted on the building.

"If I had opened this school in a black neighborhood, I wouldn't have heard a peep," she said. "People really believe that housing segregation should define the makeup of schools, even in 1992."

It's the second dispute in as many years facing the city's effort to open African-American-centered academies, designed to combat a 45 percent dropout rate among black male students.

In August 1991, a judge ordered the School Board to open the schools to girls as well as boys after the American Civil Liberties Union and National Organization for Women's Legal Defense Fund sued.

This year, the dispute focuses more on race than gender.

Ninety percent of 170,000 students enrolled in Detroit public schools last year were black. The city's overall population is 75 percent black. In the neighborhood around Malcolm X Academy, the population is about 25 percent black.