Detroit School Features African-Centered Program

WHEN the 300 students at the Paul Robeson Academy arrive at their east Detroit school each weekday morning, they have little chance to daydream. After attendance and some early-morning lessons in their homerooms, each class empties into the hallways at 10 a.m., forms lines, and marches into the spacious gym-auditorium. The 4- to 8-year-olds sit on the floor in neat rows and get ready for Harambee.

The ceremony, named after the Swahili term for "coming together and sharing," begins with a greeting from the academy's principal, Ray Johnson. Two boys whose mothers are visiting that morning bring them forward and introduce them to the other students, nearly all of whom are dressed in dark pants, white shirts, and ties.

Next the diminutive student leader for the day, draped in a multicolored kente cloth, leads the children in a kind of self-affirmative litany - "Everybody is somebody, you are somebody, I am somebody!" The gym teacher, Reginald Tabron, gives out awards to students who participated in a math contest for third graders. Applause is given in three rhythmic claps - no more. When quieting down is needed, teachers hold up a single forefinger. The kids quickly respond.

Another teacher, Mary Ann Smith, leads a few minutes of "meditation," which begin with simple muscle tightening and relaxing exercises and end with Mrs. Smith repeating, in a tone both soft and forceful, some of the academy's philosophy: "Today is one step in your quest for excellence.... What will you do in class today, at home? Do something to make you a better brother, sister, or child."

Harambee ends with a rousing cheer. The children stand, form rows, slap their hands to their sides, and yell, "Excellence!"

No child at the Robeson Academy should have any doubt about why he or she (girls are a small minority) is here, says Mr. Johnson. And the same goes for staff and parents. An athletic-looking man who radiates energy, Johnson puts tremendous emphasis on participation by parents. The academy is one of Detroit's 54 "schools of choice." Two other similar academies cater primarily to boys; three are designed for girls. A recent lawsuit forced the district to open the schools to both genders, however.

Parents who send their children to Robeson sign a contract, says Johnson. "All of our parents will receive a [parental] report card showing hours of volunteer time and meetings attended." The principal talks of an "African village model," where "everyone in the school is a teacher, parents being the primary teachers."

The academy's pervasive theme is "African-centered education." Each room is named after an African country. Children in the Ethiopia room can explain the symbolism of that country's flag, talk about its regions and products, and point it out on a world map. Kids in the Tanzania room have built - with the help of a volunteer father - a hut modeled on a typical dwelling in that land. That project taught "collective work and responsibility," says Johnson.

Don't all the cultural trappings get in the way of academic work? Just the opposite, says Johnson. He takes visitors to teacher Darryl McDuffey's classroom for a demonstration of "mental math." As Mr. McDuffey calls on them, second graders shoot out answers to "What's 12 times 13?" "5 to the third power?" "Two-fourteenths of 196?"

McDuffey is one of the "superstars" Johnson has recruited for his academy. He was impressed by the former middle-school teacher's "joy in getting kids excited about math," and asked him to join the staff at Robeson. McDuffey wasn't sure he could handle the younger kids, but Johnson, a persuasive man, prevailed.

The principal's missionary work for his school extends beyond its walls. He has visited families in the neighborhood surrounding the school's Eureka Street site - which includes white families of Italian and Polish background as well as blacks - and has experienced none of the animosity that greeted the opening of the similarly conceived Malcolm X Academy last fall in the mostly white Warrendale section of Detroit. He talks of an older white man across the street who keeps an eye on the school and has as sured Johnson he'll be the security for the academy.

He also mentions a white father who greeted him recently and asked if his daughters could attend the school. Since the family lives nearby and 30 percent of the slots in a "choice" school are reserved for neighborhood children, they'll have priority next year, says Johnson. That father, says the principal, understood the value of the education offered here.

"People ask, `Are you teaching separatism?' Quite the contrary, it's inclusionary; we want to give more, not less. We'll still teach about Christopher Columbus and about the Renaissance, but they'll learn about the Africans who were with Columbus, too. The curriculum here would be suitable for anyone," Johnson says.

He and the many other educators in Detroit firmly committed to African-centered learning may have a way to go to convince other Americans of that. More legal challenges could be in the works. But the long waiting list for Robeson and similar Detroit academies indicates that parents in this economically stressed city are convinced.

In a community that has been adrift for years, the academy's motto - "On time, on task, on a mission" - has appeal. In one classroom, Johnson points to a sign with these words from the school's namesake, African-American athlete, scholar, and singer Paul Robeson: "My future depends mostly upon myself." The children touch those words every day as they come in, he says.

The goal is to give the children "a solid foundation," Johnson says. "I don't think you will have to worry about these youngsters having a thirst for learning and a commitment to community." The principal mentions that even his youngest students have to give some time each week to community service, such as helping the elderly. That's part of their training for democracy, he says.

Referring to his city's deep problems with youthful violence, he adds, "These kids won't want to go out and get a gun."

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