In December, McCaskey East High School assigned its 275 11th-graders to 19 homerooms led by teacher-mentors. The black students were separated by gender and placed in three homerooms led by black teachers. The other students were similarly assigned to teachers with whom they'd had a prior relationship. All students were allowed to choose a different mentor or to opt out of the program altogether.
"We saw the need for mentoring of all our students," McCaskey East Principal Bill Jimenez told AOL News.
But news of the program has caused concern that the school is practicing a form of segregation –- an issue that was central to the outlawing of a Mexican-American studies program in Arizona earlier this month.
"The intent of mentoring at McCaskey High School is to build strong teacher and student relations, not separate students by race," the Lancaster School District said in a statement. "The high school is disappointed by the negative perception and focus on single racial composition programming."
The program was proposed by a McCaskey East instructional coach, Angela Tilghman, who wanted to improve the academic performance of the school's black students. Last year, they fared poorly on Pennsylvania standardized exams, with only 30 percent of black students scoring a proficient or advanced grade in reading, while 60 percent of white students and 42 percent of all students achieved those levels.
Tilghman developed the program after reading studies that suggested black students performed better when grouped by gender with other black students and a black mentor. Some of the work she cited was done by Alfred Tatum of the University of Illinois, who studies literacy in African-American males. His work has shown that placing groups of people in "literacy collaboratives," groups that are center on a common characteristic, removes other distractions.
"In this environment, you can pay attention to which identity is actually important," Tatum told AOL News. But he also warns, "It's not a panacea to isolate them in these cultural pods if they're not well thought out."
Pedro Noguera, a professor of educational sociology at New York University, told CNN that while the goal of the McCaskey program is sound, it might miss its mark.
"Sometimes when we separate students in this way we inadvertently reinforce stereotypes and may in fact stigmatize children by suggesting that there is something wrong with them and that therefore they need extra help," he said.
Noguera added that the students need not be separated by race. None of the other students at McCaskey are separated along racial lines, according to LancasterOnline, which first reported the story.
But Tilghman, who mentors the all-female, black homeroom, disagrees. A graduate of McCaskey East High School herself, she says she would like to have had the same type of mentoring when she was a student.
"I think there are content-specific issues that relate to specific racial groups," she told AOL News. "When you have common background, you have common ground."
McCaskey East isn't the only school recently scrutinized for implementing race-based practices.
In August, a Mississippi school abandoned a 30-year-old system of determining which students could run for student government based on race. Each year, the student government positions were traded between black and white students. The school district said the policy was a throwback to desegregation and an attempt to ensure that minorities were represented in the school government.