DETROIT — VARIATIONS on the African-centered curriculum offered by Detroit's Paul Robeson Academy are being tried in Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, and San Diego, among other cities. They are under consideration in Portland, Ore., and Seattle. Most, but not all, of the programs have focused on the early elementary grades, as in Detroit. These schools have been hotly controversial: Critics accuse them of fostering the resegregation of American education and of engaging in indoctrination, not education.
Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Coalition for Civil Rights and a former assistant director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sees a danger of "racial breast-beating" in such academies. The purpose of education, he says, should be "a rigorous search for the truth," not bolstering self-esteem by exaggerating the importance of a particular culture.
Last year Mr. Meyers filed a complaint about a New York City African-centered program with the federal Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. In 1987, a Florida court declared a Dade County program discriminatory and illegal. Detroit's academies had to alter their admissions policies because of a gender-bias lawsuit. The academies were originally intended just for boys.
White parents wouldn't accept a curriculum that emphasizes race, says Meyers, so why should black parents?
Bernard Charles, a long-time black educator now associated with the Institute for Schools of the Future in New York, has a different perspective. "Sometimes you need some kind of motivation to generate enthusiasm about education," he says. He doesn't see that much difference between a focus on Africa and traditional methods of getting youngsters to start thinking of the community, the state, and the world beyond their immediate surroundings. The main concern, he says, is that basic academic work not be n eglected.
Robeson Academy principal Ray Johnson says his aim is to complement traditional academics with a strong emphasis on values and on the African heritage of his students. The children's knowledge of African culture makes them curious about all other cultures, he says. He mentions presentations at the school by people of Yemeni, Thai, and Hmong backgrounds.