They did it their way

Oakland’s American Indian Public Charter High School will graduate its first class of low-income, minority students in June: All 18 are headed to college with 10 going to University of California campuses and two more to MIT and Cornell. Spitting in the eye of mainstream education has worked for the two AIPC middle schools and one high school, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Not many schools in California recruit teachers with language like this: “We are looking for hard working people who believe in free market capitalism. . . . Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply.”
. . . School administrators take pride in their record of frequently firing teachers they consider to be underperforming. Unions are embraced with the same warmth accorded “self-esteem experts, panhandlers, drug dealers and those snapping turtles who refuse to put forth their best effort,” to quote the school’s website.

Students, almost all poor, wear uniforms and are subject to disciplinary procedures redolent of military school.

On California’s Academic Performance Index, the AIPC schools — two middle schools and a high school — rank among the very best schools in the state, outperforming schools with middle-class students.

. . . American Indian attracts academically motivated students, relentlessly (and unapologetically) teaches to the test, wrings more seat time out of every school day, hires smart young teachers, demands near-perfect attendance, piles on the homework, refuses to promote struggling students to the next grade and keeps discipline so tight that there are no distractions or disruptions. Summer school is required.

The first middle school started out with the goal of teaching Indian culture.  Scores were very, very low; parents were pulling out their kids. The outrageously outspoken Ben Chavis, a Lumbee Indian, was brought in to save a school on the verge of closing.

He began by firing most of the school’s staff and shucking the Native American cultural content (“basket weaving,” he scoffed). “You think the Jews and the Chinese are dumb enough to ask the public school to teach them their culture?” he asks — a typical Chavis question, delivered with eyes wide and voice pitched high in comic outrage.

The schools now attract Asian, Hispanic, black and American Indian students. Critics say good students disportionately choose AIPC and are more likely to stick with the demanding program, which offers no electives or extra-curriculars.

About Joanne


  1. Ponderosa says:

    This guy (Chavez) is great. Wish more education leaders had his guts and forthrightness. I don’t see why ALL schools don’t demand zero disruptions.

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    I enjoy Chavez’s punchy language, but… speaking of false dichotomies! Is there room in this school for someone who is neither a free-market capitalist nor a college-tainted oppression liberator?

    I am happy for the students who benefit from the instruction. I am concerned, though, that Chavez’s polarized views may set the tone for the entire school.

    Isn’t there a way to promote both high achievement and a nuanced view of the world?

  3. Wow,I went to college with Ben Chavis in 1969 & 1970. He was certainly on a different track at that time. I am glad that he has grown so much. Well done.

  4. Diana Senechal says:

    Oh, darn. Chavis it is.

  5. Yeah, he’s such a charmer. Love how he calls non-whites “darkies.”

    The teachers moving classes instead of the kids is a European idea; it makes a certain amount of sense — lots of the worst part of public schooling happens in the halls. I wonder how the day is structured. I know I get a little stir crazy if I don’t leave my room after a few hours.

  6. Dick Eagleson says:

    Isn’t there a way to promote both high achievement and a nuanced view of the world?

    Reality has a conservative bias.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    I guess you call this “in your face”, educrats.

  8. 18 people. Guess they didn’t have issues with class sizes, hm?

    At this rate, any calculations on how long it will take to educate a generation of students?

  9. “Is there room in this school for someone who is neither a free-market capitalist nor a college-tainted oppression liberator? ”

    I’m looking for teaching jobs right now, when I’m not saying to heck with all the ideological crap. And that was exactly what Ithought when I saw the text. I’m definitely not a college-tainted oppression liberator. But if you read up on their schools,the discipline and yelling is just way too much in the opposite direction. You can be results-oriented while not thinking that the occasional rude remark is a beating offense.

  10. Ragnarok says:

    “18 people. Guess they didn’t have issues with class sizes, hm?”

    Why, Senor Downes, I’d have thought you’d be happy about the small class size. Isn’t that a progressive article of faith?

  11. Ponderosa says:

    I recently posed this question to a discipline-averse colleague who has been run-over by her sixth graders this year: If Machiavelli is true for a polity of adults, isn’t it even MORE true for a bunch of 12 year olds?

  12. greifer says:

    –sn’t there a way to promote both high achievement and a nuanced view of the world?

    Why don’t you build a school and see? You can’t find a job somewhere that fits your worldview, then build one. Put your money, time and talent where your nuanced ideology is.

  13. Dick Eagleson says:

    “Nuanced” is a Liberal code word that generally translates as delusional and wrong. Just make that mental substitution as you read along and you’ll get the sense about right.

  14. Diana Senechal says:

    Dick Eagleson,

    I consider myself in many ways conservative. Why you assume I am using liberal code words is beyond me.

    Many do not fall into either of the camps that Chavis sets up, nor should they. If there is no room for such people (and if a plea for a “nuanced view” is written off as delusional), then our society is getting scary.

  15. My class sizes range from 9 to 22 — I’m not sure my political leanings have anything to do with it since I don’t do the scheduling.

    Chavis’s model is obviously working for some. Did I read the numbers right –that about one third of the self-selected enrollees drop before finishing and that they never have more applicants than seats? That tells you why it is a niche school — it appeals to a limited number of families. For True Believers in school choice, that should sound terrific. A school has been established, it serves its market well, the students who choose to be there are successful. The challenge is to come up with other schools that will serve those kids who don’t fit at American Indian equally well. That’s the challenge of school choice — not one size fits all, but enough sizes to fit all.

    Diana, you don’t sound that progressive to me — maybe because, having sat through years and years of PD, I know all the ed code words :).

  16. Dick Eagleson wrote:

    > “Nuanced” is a Liberal code word that generally translates as delusional and wrong.

    No but the mistake’s understandable. What it really means is “I’m sensitive to the tiny, but crucial, differences that are beyond your crude perceptions, you stupid parent/conservative/non-teacher.”

    Basically it’s lefty-speak for “I’m smarter/better then you”. Irritation is understandable but it obscures the facts. Lefties aren’t delusional – that’s just name-calling – although that doesn’t prevent them from being wrong. Lefties are sure of their superiority and since the facts don’t bear out the assumption they just discover facts that are beyond the sensibilities of the dumb, two-legged draught animals with whom they’re forced to share the planet and even worse, the vote.

    What’s especially annoying to people who understand the importance of the inobvious is that the use of the word “nuance” in the public education context is more the invocation of a magic word then a claim of a subtle, but crucial, factor that’s quite naturally beyond the grasp of the non-specialist. There are certainly such factors in operation but education professionals don’t have to demonstrate their grasp of those subtle factors otherwise they’d also have to demonstrate a grasp of the grosser factors that operate to determine whether education is effective or not.

    Which brings us back to Diane’s question:

    “Is there room in this school for someone who is neither a free-market capitalist nor a college-tainted oppression liberator?”

    No. Not if what you’re interested in is education that results in skills useful beyond the indoctrination of the next generation in the certainties enjoyed by “college-tainted oppression liberator”s.

    Parents, especially poor parents, aren’t all that interested in turning their children into college-tainted oppression liberators there being a limited market for that particular skill-set. Being nuance-deprived they prefer to endow their children with skill-sets of a more decidedly commercial value such as lawyer, accountant or engineer. Without necessarily having the rhetorical skills to explain their choice those poor parents understand that a skill that enriches others is a skill that’s more likely to remain worthwhile then a skill that gratifies your own conceits. Chavis obviously understands this fact as well.

  17. Tracy W says:

    What it really means is “I’m sensitive to the tiny, but crucial, differences that are beyond your crude perceptions, you stupid parent/conservative/non-teacher.”

    Or what it can mean is “for god’s sake, please, please, please stop translating everything into black-or-white, all-or-nothing terms!”

    As someone who has felt this on the Internet while debating all sorts of people of all sorts of political persuasions.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    Lightly Seasoned

    One third drop out? In Detroit, that would be good. Difference is, in Detroit some never go to school anywhere.
    Where do this school’s drop outs go?
    If you don’t know that, the drop out rate is not telling you anything.

  19. > Or what it can mean is “for god’s sake, please, please, please stop translating everything into black-or-white, all-or-nothing terms!”

    Now that is funny.

  20. > Or what it can mean is “for god’s sake, please, please, please stop translating everything into black-or-white, all-or-nothing terms!”

    I agree, that is very funny (and sadly very true and irritating)

  21. Funny how right wingers complain about what they feel are liberal views in schools, yet applaud this guy’s right wing school. Hypocrisy knows no bounds with some it seems.

    I think the fact that they school gets such high ratings while still losing a third of students is misleading. Rating schools high with no extra curricular activities, no art, no music is not deserving of a high rating no matter the test scores, which they admit they teach to.

    If all they do is teach to the test, how will the kids understand what they are learning?

  22. Richard, sure it is. It is telling me 1/3rd don’t make it there for some reason (just as 50% don’t make it in the Detroit system). It isn’t telling me all I want to know, but it is telling me something. You don’t buy into school choice?

  23. hardlyb says:

    I sometimes use the word “nuanced”, but I’m apparently a hopeless conservative (a former colleague who is a lefty-Democrat pronounced me to be such, while explaining to me why all of the stuff I believed was wrong – oddly, not a single belief he attributed to me during this diatribe was substantially correct, although his instinct that I thought he was entirely full of c**p was correct) and I actually try to use words according to their dictionary definitions. I was criticized by another, less left-wing Democrat, as being opposed to the natural evolution of the language because of that, but since he was a liberal (uh I mean, since he felt that the definition of a word was only a suggestion), I wasn’t sure what the heck he meant by that comment.

    Anyway, it’s sad that we can’t use that word without triggering painful memories or PC police, but I would add on to the responses to Ms. Senechal’s question, “Probably not”. It seems fairly clear that this school doesn’t want that. And I think that it’s nice that they can try doing things that way, although I wouldn’t send my kids there.

  24. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’m opposed to school choice? This was the wrong week for you to quit smoking that stuff.

  25. I’m arguing for school choice and you argue against me. I’m assuming you disagree with me. Perhaps that’s just a crazy assumption on my part. I’m a public high school teacher; me don’t need none of your funny smoke to be crazy this time of year.

  26. Richard Aubrey says:

    You got going on a misinterpretation of too little information and a dose of annoyance and figured to put me down.
    But that’s okay. In class, nobody calls you on it–they might flunk–and the habit kind of spreads to dealing with adults.
    To be a little clearer, I said nothing, that is zero, zilch, nada, not a thing, nuffink, about school choice.
    I was talking about whether the drop out rate tells us anything.

  27. As a 20 yr school board member in a public district whose scores since the API began consistently rival American Indian, and as a teacher for the past 2 years in underprivileged public schools, I have some comments on both sides.
    First, let’s peel off the veneer of “test scores”, and ask the question “Is authentic and relevant learning happening in this sterile environment?” Is American Indian teaching kids how to deal with life or how to get really good at using paper and pencil? Where is the “whole child” in this prison-like environment? Should not school s be filled with some laughter and joy and discovery? And using humiliation and ridicule for discipline? Expelling a kid for a family event? This is getting very close to medieval conformity that translates into unquestioning acceptance of the faith—the antithesis of a free democratic society. If you want automatons who do not question the institution, who have no need of free expression, and whose docility makes them excellent and unquestioning soldiers of the faith or state, then AIS is the answer for all. Remember the Pink Floyd video of “Another Brick in The Wall”?
    Second, let’s look at the real value of the American Indian approach. In spite of all the bad press, public education in the US is working—for a significant number of students, year after year. Why else the intense competition for admittance to our universities? What doesn’t work is our “one size fits all” approach education. Our factory schools are designed for the college bound kids who can handle looking at the back of someone’s head for hours on end and who have the family support and drive to do well. There are many students like this. What we do not do well is meet the needs of kids who are not college bound, struggle with literacy, come from disadvantaged ‘hood, and deal with stuff that makes life a challenge. For these kids, let’s do “humane American Indian”. Why can’t one in three urban middle schools be like American Indian, or have “schools within a school” using the Chavis model? Is this discriminating? You bet. But rather than continuing to nurture drop outs, why not take those kids who need the AI approach (all teachers know who they are!) and help them succeed? They may not all get through quadratic equations, but they will certainly have been well trained in how to succeed in high school and beyond. The American Indian model is ideal for many students today, and with some creative re-engineering, could be embedded in our public schools. Tie this middle school solution to high schools that are integrated with the world of work via apprenticeships and school to work programs, and we may on the way to overcoming the NCLB-tainted “one size fits all” disaster. The time is now–

  28. Who said the school did not have art or music?